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,
- “when the carrier cancels the passenger’s flight”
- “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.