United Is Still Flouting DOT Refund Rules For Cancelled Flights

A reader shares correspondence from United Airlines, refusing to provide a refund for a cancelled flight even after filing an online Department of Transportation complaint. United’s response to the complaint literally redefines the word cancellation.

In general a company cannot keep a customer’s money while not providing the service that was purchased. The Department of Transportation is clear about this on their website,

A passenger is entitled to a refund if the airline cancelled a flight, regardless of the reason, and the passenger chooses not to travel.

What could be more black and white than that? However since airlines like United and JetBlue weren’t following the law, the DOT reminded them of their obligations at the beginning of April making clear that there are two separate scenarios where an airline must honor a “prompt” refund,

  1. “when the carrier cancels the passenger’s flight”
  2. “or makes a significant change in the flight schedule”

Now let’s take a look at how United tries to weasel out of providing a refund for a cancelled flight. They redefine ‘cancel’ and they say any time a flight is cancelled is when there’s no other flight a customer can take, e.g. they no longer serve the route. Therefore they will never provide refunds if they drop a flight but rebook a customer within 6 hours of their original schedule.

Our Schedule Change Refund policy is in compliance with the DOT statement.

United definitions, which are compliant with applicable law:

Schedule change: A flight is removed from our schedule, but the customer can be accommodated within 6 hours.

Significant Schedule Change: A flight is removed, and a customer cannot be accommodated with an impact of 6+ hours.

Cancellation: A flight is removed, and we cannot accommodate the customer.

If we remove a flight from our schedule and can accommodate the customer with another flight within 6 hours, that is not considered a cancellation.

A cancellation is not based on flight number or tail number, but on the ability to provide transportation to our customer without significant delay.

I completely understand you’d prefer not to travel at this time. You are correct; we do have an obligation to refund your money if we cannot re-accommodate you on another flight without significant delay. If we can provide transportation within 6 hours of your original departure or arrival time, this is not defined as a cancellation.

United is effectively saying that they will not provide refunds for cancelled flights, only for significant delays, because cancelled flights do not exist. They are treating DOT rules – which specifically provide for two separate reasons for a refund – as though they only provide for one.

If an airline used to fly 8 times a day between two cities, and now flies just 3 times a day, that airline has cancelled 5 flights even though the airline can still accommodate the customer. United disagrees, but that is absurd on its face.

DOT online complaints are an informal process. What I’d love to see someone do is file a formal complaint. It won’t help them get a refund any time soon. Expect the proceeding to take a year. The Department of Transportation will actually issue a ruling. Ben Edelman has an overview of this process.

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. […] It does not matter why Lufthansa didn’t fulfill its transportation obligations. The counterfactual world in which Lufthansa hadn’t cancelled the flight but the passenger wouldn’t have been able to travel due to new regulations implemented after the flight cancellation but contemporaneous with the date of scheduled travel do not change the analysis that the refund requirement is black letter law. […]


  1. United Airlines is absurd, on its face, and on every other part of its corporate anatomy, If United Airlines were human, it might be diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis and late-stage dementia.

  2. @Gary, what about advance seat selection fees? Are we eligible to get those back, even as certificates for future travel? I have flights on United that just recently got canceled (no email from United about it, I had to look at my trips on their website to find out), and they rebooked us on one of the other flights hours later or earlier that same day. So we’d love a refund, of course. But even canceling the flight and going with the electronic travel certificate option, it only shows what we paid for the tickets, not the extra seat selection fees. How can they be allowed to just keep that?

  3. Good for staying on this, Gary. UA are being absurd.

    The ball really is in DOT’s court now. They said pretty plainly what was required. Now they have to issue the fine and require refunds or shut up.

  4. @Jeff, According to DOT press release:

    “Optional Service Fees – A passenger is entitled to a refund of fees paid for an optional service (for example, baggage fees, seat upgrades, or in-flight Wi-Fi) if the passenger was unable to use the optional service due to a flight cancellation, delay, schedule change, or a situation where the passenger was involuntarily denied boarding.”


  5. Enough already! The U.S. carriers are in cahoots with their code-sharing EU carriers to sit on refunds duly owed to American passengers.

    The best medicine to resolve this timely, once and for all, and with no further obfuscation of Orwellian double speak requires the Chair of the Senate Sub-Committee on Aviation, Senator Ted Cruz, to work with DOT/FAA to simply state that U.S. consumer protection laws and FAA policies will not be violated.

    Accordingly, the U.S. and foreign carriers will be required to make refunds by 15 May, or, trigger revocation of their landing rights in the U.S.

    With Lufthansa on the precipice of obtaining its government bailout or bankruptcy, who on Capitol Hill will listen with any empathy to the manure United’s lobbyists will sling?

  6. I hope in a near future, instead of flying domestic, we will board a hyperloop vehicle and zoom at maybe 800 mph and remind airlines that a customer you screwed up Will not be a repeat customer.

  7. Why stop with a complaint? Sue them in small claims court. At least one state allows the court to impose an additional monetary award of up to $5,000 above the actual damages suffered. So if United refused to refund a $100 ticket you could ask for $5,500.

    Judges do not look kindly upon egregious behavior such as this. You almost certainly would get your refund and might end up with an additional five grand in your pocket for time spent.

    If enough people sue United might get tired of the time needed to send people to court only to lose and the message will sink in. Better than waiting for the DOT to take action.

  8. UA not only cancelled my flight, but all other flights to the airport where I was (Guatemala City), and expressly told me on the phone that because I had a BE ticket (I know), the only option was cancel/refund. No accomodation on another carrier.

    Then when I did seek a refund, it took me three tries, as they kept telling me I didn’t meet their refund criteria (the criteria discussed in this post).

    They paid it on the third request but I had already filed a DOT complaint.

  9. I live in Canada and as the borders have been closed, United had to cancel my flight flying out of and into Calgary. Not only do they refuse to refund me my money, but my credit card was charged a $25.00 cancellation fee. Suffice to say, I will not be a returning customer and will warn everyone I know not to fly with these crooks!

  10. So just how many of you have taken the 15 minutes it takes to look up you congressperson’s address and written them to ask them to introduce an amendment to next round of Pandemic funding legislation requiring that consumer refunds be a prerequisite to airlines getting their bail out money?

    I have no regrets on spending the small free to certify my letter’s.
    Mailed letters sent by certified mail are generally noticed.
    Emails are too easily deleted and forgotten.

  11. I actually can see United’s point and it may pass the DOT test. Let’s say you are on flight 123 from ORD-JFK leaving at 9 AM and getting to NY at 12:30 PM (close but not actually flight time). Given the disruption of the pandemic if United “cancels” flight 123 and consolidates it with flight 234 which leaves at 10:30 AM from ORD and gets to JFK at 2 PM I wouldn’t consider that a significant change. Bottom line is you really didn’t buy a seat on a specific flight (flight numbers and times change routinely for reservations and no one is using that to cancel and get a refund). You basically paid for transportation from point A to point B on a certain date at a specific time. If an airline can get you from point A to point B on that date and within a reasonable allowance of the original time I don’t think you should be able to qualify for a refund. People don’t want to fly (for good reason) and also would have little or nothing to do if they did (in some cases can’t even book a hotel). Therefore passengers are looking to game the system as much as airlines to get a refund when a year ago a change like this may have inconvenienced you some but you wouldn’t use it to try and get a refund.

    Grow up people and show some flexibility. If you REALLY don’t want to fly admit it, take the credit and fly in 2021 or 2022 – that simple!

  12. 2 questions:

    (1) If you purchased your ticket prior to March (when UA permitted refunds for changes that were > 2 hours) will UA refund your $$?

    (2) If UA cancels your nonstop and replaces with a connection (< 6 hours) do you get a refund?

  13. I regularly fly Allegiant from EWR to/from SAV. They have canceled all flights between those cities until at least May 21. When I got my cancellations, I called them. Up front, they offered a date change (at no additional cost, even if the new ticket was more expensive), a voucher or a REFUND. You’s think a “premium” carrier would do as much.

  14. UA have me a no questions asked voucher and refunded an upgrade fee for my (non refundable) ticket.

    Frankly, I don’t understand the article. If they can provide transportation to the destination around the same time, I suppose it’s not a cancellation they’d have to reimburse. I think that’s fair. We shouldn’t expect that expensive, polluting planes fly with only a few passengers.

  15. United Airlines just told me that for a flight I had reserved back in February, for a May 31 flight, that I could not get my money refunded because I had cancelled the reservation! I had not cancelled the reservation!! My flight has been changed by twice as long as the flight should take, but I did not cancel my reservation, and I certainly did not accept a voucher.
    This thread is helpful, I will send registered letters to Senator Cruz and to my home senator in NY. I have filled in a complaint with the DOT. It is even more disrespectful when United adds to their fuzzy following of DOT regs, the dishonesty of cancelling my ticket themselves, and then saying I’d done it. Their huge corporation, giving their president an extreme raise no less, needs my money more than I during a pandemic?

  16. United Airlines just told me that for a flight I had reserved back in January, for a May 31 flight, that I could not get my money refunded because I had cancelled the reservation! I had not cancelled the reservation!! Same thing here.

  17. I have a United flight scheduled on 5/18 for a return flight from Denver to Chicago. The wedding we were supposed to attend in Denver was canceled due to the virus. (My departure flight from ORD to Denver was scheduled on another airline.) United sent a notice that my original flight, which was a non-stop direct flight from DEN to ORD was “changed” with new flight numbers (to me this means it was canceled.) The new changed flight is not only several hours earlier than my original flight, it was also changed to a connecting flight. (They did not offer me reimbursement for the upgraded seats we purchased.) I feel these are significant changes & are not acceptable. (Aside from the fact that my event has been canceled.) I just filed a complain with the DOT. Thank you for the link to DOT. Don’t know if there will be any response from United, but the more complaints the better. I will think twice before booking on United in the future.

  18. I have read myriad articles and advice on how to get a cash refund. I even purchased travel insurance which I typically do not buy. Suffice it to say that with all the gusto and vehemence that people have when making comments, the one harsh reality I have learned is this –

    Pay extra for a refundable ticket! Unfortunately this is what I have learned. Yes, I can use credit within the next 24 months but if and when we can take a trip is a whole other matter. And is United that healthy that they do not fail and can honor the credit in two years?

    I am still trying to find ways to get my cash refund but the sad reality is that I will not. This has been a really harsh lesson for me and I suspect for many others. Thanks for your article.

  19. I have been waiting for a United supervisor to return my call for a week now. While attempting to request a refund I was repeatedly offered a travel voucher, which I continued to say no thank you. Each time I asked for a supervisor, when I asked for my second supervisor I was told she does not take calls and would return my call in 24 hours. That was a week ago. United changed our flight by over three hours, changed our carrier from United to SW and made a non stop flight into a one stop. They refuse to provide a refund stating “we consider this equivalent”. I will file a complaint with the DOT, but may be more successful denying the charge with my credit card company.

  20. I had two tickets with United and demanded a refund which they refused. I simply wrote a letter to the head of the DOT and explained United was holding my money and forcing me to rebook. I explained I am not a bank and do not issue no interest loans. The DOT got in touch with United who I heard from immediately and United agreed to give me a full refund of my money. It was rather simple to do.

  21. My flights were not cancelled but I didnt want to fly to a location that had a 14 day quarantine. I asked United for a refund which of course they refused and insisted that I rebook instead. I wrote the head of DOT and explained what happened and that I was not a bank that issued no interest loans to United which was holding my money. The DOT got involved and I immediately was contacted by United which suddenly agreed to give me a full refund. This was very simple to do.

  22. I had two tickets on United in May which were significantly changed from non-stop direct to connecting. United called it a “change” even tho the original flight was cancelled. I asked for a refund and it still says pending. I wrote to DOT regarding this. DOT replied saying they were forwarding my request to United. Haven’t heard anything back yet.

  23. I booked in January for a flight from Toronto to California thru Orbitz on a UA flight. Needless to say was cancelled and cannot get refund. Orbitz cannot help and I have submitted refund request from UA ( new feature that I saw on web site). Will have to wait and see what happens. Also have a charge back in with my bank but due to virus are saying up to 100 days. Don’t think I will live long enough to use voucher and could sure use refund.

  24. Follow up on my statement above. After writing to DOT of my problem regarding a refund from United, I suddenly received a reply from United stating that I would receive a refund within 7-10 days. This appeared as a credit on my credit card within a few days. United seems to respond when DOT gets involved!

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