It’s Time To Restore Pre-Pandemic Airline Refund Policies

If you buy a basic economy ticket you’re stuck with it. There are no changes or refunds. (Delta allows changes to basic economy tickets through end of 2021, however.)

Still, one thing that has improved is the elimination of change fees on most other tickets departing the U.S. on U.S. airlines and some of their foreign partners. That’s better.

What’s much worse is refunds.

  • During the pandemic some airlines stopped giving refunds even when they cancelled your flight. This was clearly illegal, but carriers like United and JetBlue decided it was better for them to conserve cash on the backs of their customers and live to see a fine later. Eventually most customers got their money back from cancelled flights, but the DOT is still investigating several airlines over this. Air Canada still won’t acknowledge fault as a bad actor.

  • Airlines changed their policies to limit refunds. Where a one hour flight change would be enough with some airlines to get a refund in the past, they’ve altered their policies to require four hour changes.

The Department of Transportation requires refunds when there’s a significant schedule change but doesn’t specify what significant means.

  • Delta offers refunds with a two hour schedule change
  • United says they refund when there’s a significant schedule change (aping the DOT language) but doesn’t say what significant means. They do appear to be back to offering refunds on two hour changes again. This shouldn’t be opaque to customers, however.
  • American offers refunds when there’s a four hour schedule change. Pre-pandemic it was one hour.
  • Jetblue offers refunds when there’s a schedule change of more than two hours.

When an airline sells you an 8 a.m. flight that gets you to a meeting on time, and that turns out to be bait and switch – your flight is now scheduled for 11:30 a.m. – surely you should be entitled to a refund. The airline isn’t keeping their end of the bargain, instead offering something fundamentally different.

Sure, your ticket may not have a change fee. But if American’s flight is now at 11:30 a.m. you might prefer a refund in order to use the money to buy Delta’s 7:30 a.m. (United actually tortured the definition of words to say they never cancel flights as long as they still serve a route. If customers are re-accommodated days later, they haven’t been “cancelled.”)

Airlines received $79 billion in direct support from taxpayers. This doesn’t count tax breaks, money to airports that benefited airlines, or money to airline contractors. There’s little risk that the major U.S. carriers will face bankruptcy reorganization from the pandemic.

I’m not arguing that “we gave them money, they owe us better policies.” I’m simply arguing that anti-customer policies adopted under the mantra of self-preservation are no longer necessary. It’s time to revert to pre-pandemic refund rules. A three hour flight change means not giving customers what they paid for, and passengers should be entitled to their money back.

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. You are so right … but the airlines have vast departments of middle managers who do nothing but think up ways to pad the bottom line. As a business owner, I understand cash flow and I understand refunds taking more time than before the virus. But that should not mean that they garble up their terms & conditions to always hang the pax out to dry.

  2. Our have a good travel agent, who’s connected and was able to refund anything, anytime, over the last 24 months.

    And don’t buy Basic fares peeps.

  3. I’ll take the current situation over previous precovid days with massive change fees and cancellation penalties any day. It’s not perfect but given how we know airlines operate this change would likely come at a much greater cost.

  4. Yeah, no, Gary. Mon is exactly right. A return to “Pre-Pandemic Airline Refund Policies” means a return to change fees and higher priced flexible fares. No thanks.

    I rarely book flights more than 3 or 4 weeks out, especially now with the continuing uncertainty around travel, events, and meetings. Thus I’m rarely affected by schedule changes – and I bet more people are in my sort of booking pattern than are purchasing lots of flights a long time out. I’ll glad trade more lenient schedule change refund policy for the current situation we have with regards to flexibility and change fees.

  5. Exactly as above, can’t have it both ways. Going back to precovid refund policies may return us to precovid change fees.

  6. Funny how people you can argue it’s not so bad to sell you one product and deliver an inferior one; we’ll see how you like it when your nonstop Us-Asia flight turns into a two-stop 39 hour marathon and the airline declines to issue a refund.

  7. DOT just ruled against me on a complaint for moving my landing time by 2h. The real issue is that they refuse to define what significant is in clear terms.

  8. I have to agree with Mon and Bob. The AA 4 hour rule is not customer friendly, but the absence of change fees is a good trade-off. The absence of redeposit fees for award flights makes AA miles very flexible.

  9. I also vote for no change fees, but no refunds as an improvement. I can almost always find a way to reuse the credit, but no change fees is a HUGE improvement. I can even play the Southwest game on AA and rebook my flights when they go on sale and use the remaining funds for credit on a later flight. No more worrying that I booked too early and missed out on a great sale. Just keep monitoring prices, easy enough with a dozen different tools.

    Yes, airlines constantly changing schedules and connections is a pain, my flights to Paris in December have now changed three times since booking in August, but the flexibility of no change fees allows me to reconsider my flights and now do an open jaw, on slightly different dates, for essentially the same or lower price.

    Let’s be honest, this site is populated by sophisticated frequent fliers, do you really fly so infrequently on an airline that you need a refund rather than a credit? Or do you just like to complain? Take the no fee changes and run.

  10. I agree with all those who like the current flexibility over the prior change policies. I will admit that I got all my airline spending refunded from multiple airlines and multiple international business trips last spring, but it took many calls, CC disputes, and DOT complaints. But I got it all back. (I did lose $85 for a local guide, but that guy needed it. One day, I hope to call the guy and ask for a free tour.)

  11. I had a flight on United Seattle-Chicago-London, Polaris class out of Chicago, booked with points, for the end of September 2021. The tour we were going to take was cancelled and then so was the tied-in westbound Cunard crossing in mid-October. In the meantime, United changed the schedule a bit, and allowed me to cancel if I wanted (which I would have had to do anyway). I got all my points back.

    One mild annoyance: If one books a premium cabin on one segment, and pays the premium cabin points for the whole trip, it would seem to me that one should get premium cabin seats on the connecting domestic flight.

  12. Travel affiliates will enjoy passive income from promoting pre and post pandemic travel offers with their affiliate links.

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