Elizabeth Warren And Bernie Sanders Demand Airline Ticket Refunds

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren and several Senate colleagues including Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and 6 others, announced a letter to the CEOs of major U.S. airlines demanding “every company to issue full cash refunds to all customers who cancel their flights during the COVID-19 crisis.”

The problem many of us have faced is that airlines around the world have refused to provide refunds when they cancel flights. The airline isn’t providing promised transportation, but is keeping the money. They’re doing this because they’re desperate for cash, they have our cash, so enforce an involuntary interest-free loan.

  • We get a travel credit, good for a year from original date of ticket purchase.
  • They break the law, but most people won’t complain and by the time any fines are levied it’ll be far enough in the future that it’s beyond their current concerns.

I’ve advised people they should seek the help of their credit card issuer to dispute charges, and file complaints with the U.S. Department of Transportation (which requires refunds for cancelled flights) and the European Union under EU261 (refund guidance was reinforced this month) as appropriate based on the airline and flight itinerary.

However Elizabeth Warren and her two colleagues want to go further. They want refunds for everyone, including those who have chosen to cancel trips themselves. They make the case that this should be honored because of the airline bailout but that’s just grandstanding.

  • They could have insisted this as a part of the bailout package. They did not.
  • Bailout decisions are now in the hands of the Treasury Secretary, and they aren’t even writing to him.

They complain that “Americans need money now to pay for basic necessities” though I’m not sure how that’s really the airline’s problem (as opposed to society’s problem generally). Airlines should honor their refund obligations, both from a legal and a moral standpoint. However the demand of these Senators seems to go farther than that.

“The ongoing pandemic is placing enormous financial strain on millions of Americans, and families need cash to pay for essentials such as food, housing, and medical care,” write the Senators. “In light of this pressing need and the unprecedented bailout — to the tune of $25 billion — that the airline industry just received from Congress, we believe your company has a moral responsibility to provide real refunds, not travel vouchers, to consumers, and to support State Department efforts to repatriate any American citizens trying to come home.”

The Senators also demand each airline answer a series of question:

  • Total value of travel issued during the coronavirus pandemic
  • Total number of flights cancelled during the crisis (including those legally required to be cancelled as a result of travel restrictions)
  • Whether they’ll provide full cash refunds, even for those who chose to cancel their own travel plans and have already received (but not used) vouchers?
  • Whether they’ll provide refunds for travelers whose flights are cancelled by the airline?
  • Whether they’ll “commit to working with the State Department to expedite commercial flights – at an affordable price – for all Americans who remain stranded abroad?”

Generally speaking airlines are willing to work with the State Department on rescue charters. There are plenty of grounded aircraft and the State Department has successfully chartered several flights. I wrote about one from Maputo, Mozambique. This is complicated by local government restrictions on flights, and by challenges making Americans aware of the opportunity.

A demand for cash refunds for cancelled flights is reasonable, and the Department of Transportation should be taking a lead on this. A demand for refund of flights travelers have chosen to cancel doesn’t appear to be required under current law, though might make good fodder for a class action lawsuit claiming that government travel warnings are enough to constitute force majeure or at least ‘contract frustration’.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren aren’t likely to get justice for customers, especially by making demands that go beyond what’s clearly required, and doing so after they have already voted airlines the bailout money.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. According to Senator Cruz, the Republicans initially wanted only to give loans to the airlines. However, the Democrats demanded that half of the relief was grants. Go figure.

  2. What would have been really relevant is to require the foreign airlines to fully refund tickets purchased. Despite the EU’s regulation #261, their airlines are acting as if that’s all news to them. Those carriers are maintaining their cash flow at our expense.

  3. You have to give the airlines credit for waiving the rules and allowing a credit when passengers voluntarily cancelled their trips. That, they were not required to do according to their contract.

    Since Bernie and Warren say that they must be more accommodating since they were recipients of a bailout, that is not much different from sexual abuse. For example, the pimp demands something, like a deviant sexual act, because he paid for some need (housing or food or something else) for the sex worker. Politicians shouldn’t be pimps even though they often are. We, the People, are the abused.

  4. Also, remember this is the swamp. The purpose of Senate investigations into companies is usually to obtain campaign contribution or favors for friends, to make the investigations go away. As I have mentioned before, the Sainted John McCain was famous for leading the investigation the defense contractors, filling up his campaign coffers, then making the investigations go away.

  5. Gary – it’s not grand standing at all. Do you seriously doubt they weren’t clamoring for this in the negotiations (if they we even a part)? What republican would have agreed to it? Both parties did what they did to negotiate something ASAP. These are qualities both have long stood for. It’s not grand standing to have your voice heard especially when you have a louder voice than many of us.

  6. @ Chris@OAK — The socialists are running the country already. They are named Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.

  7. No problem, Find a slime ball class action attorney to start a class action for triple damages. Congress can’t get anywhere writing letters and they are too stupid to even notice. Give me a hairy backed class action attorney any day-and he/she gets paid too. Let the legal games begin. It’s how consumer complaints get resolved in a corrupt business society.

  8. @ paul — Better off opting out of any class actions and filing your own suits. Many of these airline policies are just flat out theft, and you would win in a heartbeat, if the defense lawyers even bothered to shown up at all.

  9. Why are airlines charging to cancel a flight to a country that is locked down?
    Why do we only have 6 or so major carriers in the US? With no competition the consumer is without a choice. The rest is history. Bring back competition and consumers will decide who treated them fairly. The cruise industry is doing the right thing for consumers because cruiseline must earn the loyalty of the costumer by how they respond.

  10. @Shawn – republicans wanted to give loans and not even provide grants. democratic senators drove the push for the cash grant bailouts, and focused their conditions (which republicans wouldn’t agree to) on $15 minimum wage, having the government buy and retire older less fuel efficient planes

  11. I have a ticket with United….IAD TO SAT ON APRIL 2.. they have cancelled that flight and put me on a connecting flight….which arrives 4 hours later. They won’t refund…just want to give me a credit. Any advice??? Thanks!!

  12. I don’t get it: What’s the problem with these senators demanding something that the airlines should be doing anyway? This is an unprecedented public health crisis. Of course most people are going to want to stay safe and avoid unwittingly transmitting the disease. And if they do, of course they’re entitled to refunds.

  13. FYI GARY, just thinking of you and what you do:
    I am an intensive care nurse new-grad, just checking the costs on an award flight to NYC from another state in the event I am able to go there this weekend to volunteer in their hospitals for awhile/weeks (hopefully not *directly* replacing one who has recently died/killed due to the actions of a treasonous terrorist so-called president, and his willing henchmen/whores.)

    Most were 50 THOUSAND MILES, ONE WAY. Let’s all let this sink in for a moment. Of course, while hands out for 12 BILLION DOLLARS PLUS PLUS THIS TIME, not to mention the FIFTY TO ONE HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS in stock buybacks and bonuses that they’ve paid to their common holders and execs in the last few years… oh, and whore floggers.

    As you continue to flog for terrorist banksters and airlines (to name a few), I truly hope your child (or any of your loved ones) never needs the services of all of the extraordinary nurses and doctors… in the richest country in the history of the world, who don’t have enough gloves or face masks or gowns.. whom you’ve gone out of your way to fuck…

    ..over many, many years…

  14. I think Gary you may be correct about it being grandstanding. I do also think that their actions could benefit consumers by raising awareness about the shady practices occurring just as you and others do. While you probably have one of the largest audiences in this field, you can’t deny that whatever these high profile politicians say is immediately news and reaches many many more people. Perhaps they can create enough backlash to have the airlines abide by the law. By asking for more, it sets the compromise point at just obeying the law. It’s probably a calculated move because, well, that’s politics.

  15. @J – I don’t see how I am flogging for airlines, I was opposed to the bailout and vocally so. If you’re in fact an ICU nurse and looking to travel where you can help, send me an email I am happy to assist with the flight.

  16. @Duke – that is contrary to the published policy at the time of purchase if you didn’t buy the ticket in the past few weeks, file a dispute with your card company and a complaint with the dot

  17. The Failed Socialist candidates want to screw every possible corporation as much as possible. Copa Air gave me credit to use till 12/31/21. I do not plan to take the many hours of time to try and get a full refund. People that buy airline tickets have enough wealth that they do NOT need help from the government to get their money back.

  18. Gary – You stated defense is party based not person based. So to say someone is grandstanding on an issue that has always run parallel to their beliefs isn’t true. Not sure, say they could have voted no on the bill. But Bernie and Elizabeth aren’t the party nor do they control it.

  19. @Gary..Update..United did refund me my upgrade fees to first class on both trips. They would only credit my original ticket fee. In my case I may be okay with that since I will be booking tickets for a flight in August to Montreal.

  20. I buy ticket from cheaponair I been trying to reach out to them I cant get a one answer. It just getting so annoying I dont want refund I just need a new ticket.

  21. @Dougie – when we buy a ticket, we are entering a contract with the airline, which is incredibly one-sided and unfair for the customer. In other countries (in the European Union for example), there are laws saying that if the airline cannot fly you exactly on the flights you booked, you get your money back. We need a similar level of regulation. In fact, we could just get rid of change fees as well — none of this crap is needed in order to have functioning airlines. European carriers are doing decently well despite the more consumer-friendly regulation of air travel over there.

    The airlines got their bailout money, and once again politicians have failed to couple the handout with some tough regulations to stop their abuse of customers. It’s just like the last time. Of course we can’t let large corporations go bankrupt — but we should at least ask for something in return for OUR money (taxpayers). Really, any corporation that gets bailout money should give the government equivalent value in stock — and a significant bailout should result in nationalization. It’s the only way to protect the financial interest of taxpayers.
    I’m somebody who usually flies over 150,000 miles a year for business by the way.

  22. Of course, Senor Cruz must be correct. Republicans have not lied at all in the last 10 years. We must take Senor Cruz at face value.

  23. It’s a mistake to believe that there is any law requiring carriers to give refunds for flights they cancel. The often referenced information is DOT guidance, there is no existing FAR. And force majeure would have the opposite effect as suggested, as any carriers contract of carriage allows them to do basically anything they want to under the guise of force majeure. (Which is exactly why they’re not giving refunds on flights they canceled due to government mandate right now.)

  24. @Paul Goormastic – on the contrary, force majeure wouldn’t let carriers do anything they want, it voids a contract and returns the parties to their original position, no transportation requirement for the airline and cash back in the hands of the consumer

  25. Ok let’s clear something up, people. If your flight is canceled you are entitled to a 100 percent refund. No if and or buts about it. Period. But what we have are passengers trying to cancel and rebook the same trip for a lower fare. I’m all for making a buck, and getting a great deal, but this should be no time, to get a little extra. Most airlines have extended the tickets to at least a year, from the date of purchase. That seems fair. If you need a little more time and can be specific, then there is situational flexibility.

  26. We booked Air Portugal thru Expedia …flight to Italy wS cancel, but but they will not give us a refund.Alril 29 to May 13…what can we do?

  27. Got to disagree with you Gary. These senators are only asking for something the airlines should be doing themselves. Virgina, where I live, has ordered NO nonessential travel for the next 2 months. All vacation travel is nonessential so if you try to fly you are breaking the law. People holding any level of airline ticket for flights scheduled for the next 6 months should be able to cancel for a full refund.

  28. At least they’re trying. Better than most do-nothings selling stock before the general public knew about this big crisis.

  29. @J – Delta is staying they are offering free flights to healthcare workers so suggest you give them a call

  30. When you run for office you have money so why ask for a refund. Swallow and eat it , airlines are hurting too with this crisis. You both wanted be presidential candidates. Dont tax the tax payers

  31. Thank you Gary and staff team! I never even thought to ask for a refund until I read this. I am so grateful. First I emailed, tweeted Delta and tried to dispute with AX
    Platinum. Then what worked was a simple call to Delta that refers you to a Refund number 800-847-0578. Laurie in Minneapolis was fantastic. She refunded to my AX over $1200. I can’t thank you enough for posting this. Ellen Levin

  32. So these Senators want refunds instead of vouchers for canceled travel, echoing multiple blog postings by one Gary Leff. They add that they want refunds for self- canceled travel, which Gary suggests could be warranted by a force majeure argument.

    Yes they voted for the overall legislation. Maybe they individually supported the airline bailout provision or maybe they didn’t. You only get to vote on the whole bill, I don’t remember a lot of amendments being in order. As I recall, Ted Cruz voted for the bill too.

    So other than not agreeing with these politicians’ general ideology, what is the point of this article? Or maybe I just answered my own question…

  33. @Gary Leff – I suggest you take a look at the force majeure clauses in each carrier’s CoC’s, as their lawyers would disagree. Southwest was briefly using theirs to justify not giving refunds on flights cancelled due to “government mandate.”

  34. And don’t forget Nancy’ s $$$35 million to the Kennedy center. To the unions and of course the postal service bailout($$22 billion for underwater pensions) and last but not least voter registration the day of the election. Sans ID’s

  35. How Pathetic that Kamela Harris is all of sudden worried about the working man .She grew up in Montréal’s most exclusive suburb,Westmount And went to $20,000 a year private Elementary school ,She then had an affair with San Francisco’s most corrupt mayor in history Willie Brown And then magically became Attorney General . Now She lives in Brentwood in a $11 Million compound .

  36. My question is what about those of us who purchased tickets 11 months in advance with points? I booked 2 R/T business class seats on LOT Polish air using my United miles. Great deal, 70 K per person per each way. I don’t really want my miles back, I want to be able to have the same or similar flights sometime in the future after Covid 19 dies down. Right now, looks like the best I could do is get my miles refunded (either on United or LOT, don’t know which) and then use them within a year. Since the tickets were purchased in Oct and Nov 2020 I would have to use them by Nov and Dec 2020, which clearly won’t work. Any thoughts?

  37. @Gary, finally got my Chase refund from Singapore Air. Filed US DOT complaint about SA wanting to charge me $200 per ticket ($1000 total) to process refund and instead giving me a voucher. Ditto on my seat assignments I paid $200 for.

    Frankly wasn’t holding my breath, given covid-19 and Gov agencies, but DOT replied within a few days (I was impressed) and filed a claim with Singapore air on my behalf as my flights originated SFO and had been cancelled by SA.

    Lo and behold, got an email from Singapore air that “a code was put in my travel agency (Chase/expedia) record” to provide a full refund. Got my UR points back instantly. What a cluster, but all’s well that ends well.

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