Passenger Rights

OP-ED: You’re Entitled to a Refund for Any Canceled Flight, Even During a Pandemic

Editor’s note: On April 3, the DOT of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings issued an Enforcement Notice firmly supporting the federal requirement that airlines issue cash refunds when they cancel flights. The notice affirms that issuing a future credit or voucher does not satisfy the DOT requirement. Failure to comply, says the notice, “could subject the carrier to an enforcement action.” You can read more here.

Airlines like to charge for everything—bags, boarding groups, seats, seat selection. But they rarely get so brazen as to refuse refunds for simple things like a canceled flight, probably because it’s squarely illegal in the United States.

Why, then, has one airline has been denying customers refunds on flights it has canceled amid the global pandemic? The Department of Transportation (DOT) says it is aware of customer complaints that United is offering only airline credits to passengers on flights that have been canceled outright. Multiple U.S. senators are also now calling on airlines to provide refunds.

According to USA Today, United has tried to say it will only provide airline credit, not cash refunds, for canceled domestic flights: “United is not issuing refunds unless the new flight their computer system automatically put you on delays your departure or arrival by more than six hours. If it doesn’t, and you don’t want to travel, you’ll receive a travel credit for the value of the ticket.”

For international flights (almost all of which are now canceled due to a Global Level 4 Health Advisory), “United is effectively delaying any passenger refunds for up to a year” and giving customers a credit that’s good for a year. If they don’t use it within a year of the ticket purchase date, the airline says the customer can then get their money back.

Most other airlines have been amiable—even helpful—in canceling flights and guaranteeing the refunds travelers are, in fact, owed. And they should be: In uncertain times like these, you probably need that money you spent months ago on a flight you’ll now not take. And consumer rights advocates are accordingly admonishing United and other airlines trying this, which also include JetBlue and British Airways.

Here’s how the DOT lays out your rights in a cancellation (emphasis mine):

“If your flight is cancelled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportationeven for non-refundable tickets. You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment.”

These are trying times for airlines and people alike. But when a billion-dollar company like an airline is skirting solid consumer regulations meant to protect average people, something is awry.

It might come as no surprise that the major offending airline is United, which in the early days of this pandemic overhauled its schedule-change policy (and then backtracked) from allowing two-hour delays to attempting to allow whopping 25-hour changes without refunds.

If you’re questioning whether or not you’re allowed to ask (politely) for a refund when your flight’s status becomes “canceled,” the answer is yes. And anyone who’s told no by an airline should consider filing a complaint with the Department of Transportation here.

Editor’s note: This story contains opinions of the writer and does not reflect those of SmarterTravel or TripAdvisor (our parent company).

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon is a former news reporter who writes about all things travel. Follow her on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

By Shannon McMahon

Editor Shannon McMahon is always planning her next trip and often writing in her travel journal. Follow her on Twitter @shanmcmahon_ and on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

Shannon joined SmarterTravel in 2015. A former news reporter, she's lived in the south of Spain, spotted elephants in Sri Lanka, gone spelunking in the Caribbean, hiked Jordan's Petra Basin, interviewed Sao Paulo's Michelin-Star chefs, and explored China via bullet train. Travel trends, news oddities, and her visits to up-and-coming destinations are some of her favorite things to write about.

Her stories have also appeared online on USA Today, The Sun, Huffington Post, Business Insider,,, and more. Her educational background is in journalism, art history, gender studies, Spanish, and film. She's been quoted as an expert travel source by CNBC,, MarketWatch, The Washington Post, USA Today, and more.

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