Airlines are required to provide a refund when they cancel a flight, or make a significant change to their schedule. Federal law does not define what either of these two things mean, so airlines can create their own definition as long as it’s reasonable. United has adopted an unreasonable interpretation,
- A flight is only ‘cancelled’ when the airline cannot accommodate a passenger on another flight, regardless of how inconvenient. If United used to operate 8 flights a day between two cities, and now only flies twice a day, they claim they haven’t actually cancelled six flights – or even any flights – because they still fly passengers on the route.
- A significant schedule change is when a customer is moved to another flight six or more hours away from the time that they booked.
The problem for United, according to guidance from the Department of Transportation, is that even if the definition of cancellation were reasonable (it is not) this policy is new and cannot be made to apply to tickets that were purchased prior to the policy going into effect.
The Department interprets the statutory prohibition against unfair or deceptive practices to cover actions by airlines and ticket agents applying changes retroactively to their refund policies that affect consumers negatively. The refund policy in place at the time the passenger purchased the ticket is the policy that is applicable to that ticket. The Aviation Enforcement Office would consider the denial of refunds in contravention of the policies that were in effect at the time of the ticket purchase to be an unfair and deceptive practice.
Through March 6 United’s policy was to honor refunds whenever there was a schedule change of 2 hours or more. Its newspeak definition of what constitutes a cancellation dates to late April. So if you purchased a ticket before the new policy, and United refuses a refund, you should complain to DOT and file a chargeback with your credit card company.
Complaints about airlines are way up in the U.S. DOT reports that in an average month they receive 1500 complaints. Now, with 90% fewer people traveling, complaints have skyrocketed, “in March 2020 and April 2020, more than 25,000 air travel service complaints and inquiries were filed.”