Congress Adds Language To Require Automatic Refunds When Flights Are Delayed Or Cancelled

The FAA’s new consumer protection regulation requires airlines to refund customers in the event of a cancellation or 3 hour delay (6 hours for international).

  • That’s less generous than United’s and Delta’s policy
  • But better than American’s policy – American kept its customer-unfriendly four hour rule imposed during the pandemic and never went back like other carriers did.

I’ve worried that the DOT rule might cause United and Delta to revert to the government’s less generous standard, leaving many passengers worse off.

I specifically thought this might happen when paired with the FAA’s automatic refund rule – a customer doesn’t even need to ask for the refund, it has to be processed automatically when certain conditions are triggered. And it’s complicated to build out different processes for different lengths of time (such as requesting a refund on a two hour delay, processing automatically for three hours).

I also laid out how the automatic portion of the rule could go wrong for passengers. If there’s a way for airlines to abuse the rule against consumers, they’re going to do so.

In their need to reach 100% compliance, an airline might become quick to trigger a refund rather than helping a passenger. Giving back $50 for an advance purchase ticket and leaving them stranded to buy a $1,000 ticket home doesn’t make them better off.

The $105 billion FAA Reauthorization conference report contained language that would guarantee a refund on request of the passenger. This seemed better to me. However it was also interpreted as undermining the Department of Transportation’s requirements.

  • The FAA reauthorization bill came out after the DOT rule
  • People were concerned about the automatic refund requirement
  • The legislative language would have eliminated the automatic processing requirement

Except that the language in the FAA reauthorization bill had been there for months, long before the FAA’s final rule. It wasn’t a late add in conference. Nonetheless, there’s been backlash against the bill and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has been blamed.

Now the bill’s language is being updated to bring automatic refunds back in, but more carefully draft language around when those refunds should be processed in a way that hopefully narrows the change of passengers being left high and dry with airlines giving back money and washing their hands of transportation obligations.

I personally don’t see a problem with leaving it up to the customer to request a refund. That’s how every other product in the world works – if you want a refund, you ask for one. I’m not sure why we should be treating airline passengers differently, especially given the complexity, and writing this into law. But people get frustrated with airlines, and politicians don’t like siding with them in an election year.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I want a refund , multiplied by the number of dogs brought on board .

    If 3 dogs , I want 3 times the refund .

  2. I think the historical issue is that airlines haven’t been very transparent in letting customers know they could request a refund for flight cancellations or schedule changes- by first offering up flight credits instead. Inexperienced travelers would not know, for example, that with AA you have to go to and submit your refund request for review.

    I’ve personally had friends who had US airlines cancel routes in advance with no re-accommodation, and been told by airlines that they were just getting a flight credit. I’ve had to tell them that they needed to go back and request a refund.

  3. If there is a way to screw this up the airlines and passengers will find a way – it never fails. Nothing good lasts in this era of DemocRat liberal thinking.

  4. If I buy something from Best Buy, they give me clear control of what I can do in case the product is defective. I appreciate that air travel is more complicated than just a product purchase, but airlines don’t get points for their transparency. When you hear gate agents offering vouchers,.for example, you never hear them remind you that you can insist on cash. Airlines love blame weather when it’s other lack.of crew or.a working aircraft. Europe is way ahead on pax rights but even that process can be a struggle. I’ve had flight delays on long haul to Europe and by the time I land I have a request from the airline for my bank details and the payment (about $600) sent with a day. And that still requires the airlines to get me where I’m going. They have had a number of years to work it out and it’s not a bad system..but still the airlines will try to lie and blame others. If airlines were truly responsible and responsive then the automatic features wouldn’t be necessary

  5. If my flight is delayed or canceled, most of the time I don’t want a refund; I want to be on the next flight. I only see this hurting the traveler in those situations. It will frequently be cheaper and easier to just dole out refunds than to accommodate passengers on another flight. And they’ll be able to say, “We had to do it,” when they strand us.

  6. Immediate refund of my 300 ticket and now to rebook is 1800?

    Who protects the consumers rights in these instances?

  7. For American, the delay policy is 90 minutes while UA is 2 hours. I’m not sure if this is in the contract of carriage, but it’s my experience from actual refunds and what agents have said. You’re thinking of AA’s schedule change policy (applies only 3 or more days before departure) which is 4 hours. And, AA’s contract does mention that they owe only a refund (and not rebooking) at 4 hours delay, but you will get one before then. Though I agree with DWT, the process of requesting refunds (particularly for AA) is unnecessarily complicated and beyond just canceling the reservation.

  8. If i book a flight and then i want to change or cancel it; i can’t (unless i payed extra for a refundable ticket).
    But the airlines have NO problem telling me on the day of the flight “oh whoops! We just canceled/delayed your flight ha – ha! There’s nothing you can do about it!
    Oh wait! We are willing to give you an alternative flight some other time after you already planed your trip, payed for hotels, and took off from work.

    This behavior is outragous and this new bill is nowhere near enough. The only resonable thing is what they do in europe where a plane ticket is a contract in which the airline has to get the passanger at the specified time and they fail to do so the airline owes hundreds of euros in compensation.

    It seems to me that the airlines probebly lobbied congress to pass this bill and not something substantial that would actually protect costumers

  9. Is there a definition on what “cancel” means in the bill? I remember from Covid days when United would cancel a non-stop and put you on a connecting flight but refuse a refund as per them the flight was not “cancelled” but just “rescheduled”!

  10. There are almost always unintended consequences of certain actions taken…this could be one of them.

  11. This is a terrible piece of regulation for many reasons and this is one of those reasons.

    First off, the refund should be a customer choice. If you want to tell the airline they are required to ask if a customer wants a refund, that is one thing. But giving the airlines the choice to process one is asinine as it will lead to stranded travelers. I’ve read the regulation and it permits this kind of thing by the way it is worded.

    If I wrote this to have teeth, it would say that after a significant schedule change or delay, a customer has the right to choose a flight option at the airlines expense (on that airline or a competitor) that is significantly similar to the original flight, or they can choose a refund.

    If I am an airline and I’ve overbooked my flight by 10 passengers, I’d think the best thing for me to do is delay the flight long enough so I can cancel their tickets and refund them.

    Lastly a schedule change of 4 or 5 hours for a quick weekend on an international Caribbean trip might make that trip pointless (arriving at noon versus evening). If an airline makes a schedule change more than 24 hours from the flight time, it should be an hour to trigger a refund or flight change at the customers behest.

  12. How about “you have to both automatically refund customers, AND get them to their final destination anyway” as a rule? If this were the rule, airlines would run like Swiss trains.

    Also – is there any situation, anytime, anywhere, ever that Ted Cruz doesn’t take the position of being the biggest jerk humanly possible? I get that this is his brand, but if there’s anything less popular than Ted Cruz, it’s the airlines. Maybe this is his way of paying them back for helping him run away to Mexico during a snowstorm when the power was out.

  13. Between U.S, airlines, and the govt., complex is the default choice in the U.S. Retired in Europe, I love having EU 261 when the shit hits the fan. And contrary to zombie GOP supporters, DEM or GOP is not a better option.

    Finnair credited my bank account for the correct amount when thy cancelled our flight, within one week. But, if they didn’t, I have the option to apply directly to the EU or go to a for profit company.

    Here’s a bonus tip for those traveling from Europe to Tokyo (Haneda) in 12 months. Was looking for biz class tickets on LH from Frankfurt today and found first class fares cheaper than their biz class. Usually two days per week with these fares. We originate in Malta, spend four days in Kyoto, fly on Air Tahiti to Moorea for a week. Then fly back to Tokyo for five days, and back to Malta.(Same cheap First class on return LH.

  14. BA canceled my flight from Copenhagen to San Francisco. They offered an alternative that downgraded us from business to coach, arrived much later and at a different airport (SJC not SFO). No refunds no EU $$ despite me requesting. Tough to negotiate the BA bureaucracy and gave up

  15. Alan – the only problem with 261 is when an airline refuses to give you the money. I’ve had United stonewall me multiple times and they basically force you into using a third party to collect. There needs to be much more severe punishment to airlines who owe the 261 penalties and don’t pay out (and make life super difficult for the passenger).

  16. What we need is something like EU261. I’ve been on at least 50 flights in the EU and only one caused me to be delayed long enough to make an EU claim and that was because they sold me a ticket with 1 hour to change plane in Madrid when arriving from the USA. Our flight was only 20 minutes late but that was enough to cause us to miss the connection which meant a 9-hour wait for the next flight out (every other flight was full). I can’t count how many delays we have had in the US, including overnight, with very little compensation.

  17. People are going to be so pissed when they get their refund and every flight available to purchase (re-purchase) is thousands of dollars more!

  18. Savvy travelers who absolutely have to get from point A to point B may start buying fully refundable tickets as a plan B, set maybe four hours after the original tickets flight times. That may be a cheaper alternative to a last minute ticket with it’s own set of complications and costs. Heavy sales of refundable tickets could cause havoc in the prediction of whether flights are full or not.

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