From early on in the current crisis I’ve suggested that you shouldn’t cancel flights until close to departure, waiting to see if the airline scrubs your itinerary. If you voluntarily cancel all you’ll get is a travel voucher. If the airline cancels on you, you’re entitled to a refund.
Several airlines were resistant to this. However the Department of Transportation reinforced that when airlines cancel flights they are required to give a customer back their money. They cannot keep money for services that aren’t rendered. “Needing the money” is not a justification, and by the way customers need the money too.
However it’s worth underscoring that refunds for future airline tickets aren’t just due to you in the event the flight you booked is cancelled. Refunds are also required in the event of a significant schedule change as well. Here’s the Department ofTransportation,
Carriers have a longstanding obligation to provide a prompt refund to a ticketed passenger when the carrier cancels the passenger’s flight or makes a significant change in the flight schedule and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier.
American Airlines used to offer refunds when flight schedules change 2 hours or more. For tickets purchased April 8, 2020 onward they require a change of 4 hours or more, or being moved from a non-stop to a connecting itinerary. That change is likely to pass DOT muster without difficulty. DOT isn’t clear on what the threshold for ‘significant’ is here.
United Airlines is requiring schedule changes of 6 hours or more to provide a refund. Up until March 6 the policy was changes of 2 hours or more. That may be within the bounds of significant as well.
For United tickets purchased prior to March 6 I would still insist on a refund and file a Department of Transportation complaint if none is provided, because even though their old published policy was more generous than the fine print of their Contract of Carriage, changing an advertised policy after tickets have been purchased is an “unfair and deceptive practice” in DOT parlance.
A reader recently asked me about an Allegiant schedule change of 11 hours 40 minutes. He was hoping they’d cancel the flight, but I am certain that a nearly 12 hour change (from an evening flight to a 6 a.m. departure) is significant. So I told him he should file a DOT complaint if they wouldn’t refund him and consider a credit card chargeback as well.