Democrats’ bill would force airlines to make more refunds

Even customers who dropped flights because they feared infection could get their money back under the bill. Airlines say they'd risk bankruptcy.

An airliner takes off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
An airliner takes off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 13, 2020 at 3:44pm

Five Senate Democrats hope to force airlines to offer cash refunds for flights canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, including those canceled by travelers worried about health risks.  

Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., say they want their bill, which would also apply to third-party ticket sellers such as Travelocity, to be included in the next round of coronavirus spending.  

The bill comes one day after the U.S. Department of Transportation offered guidance saying that travelers must get refunds when airlines cancel flights, but not when the traveler decides not to fly.   

Markey said Wednesday that though carriers are required to refund the cost of flights they cancel, many instead offer to rebook passengers or provide a voucher for another flight without telling passengers that they are eligible for a refund.  

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It’s “unconscionable,” he said, that airlines would not return the money after taking billions from taxpayers. “We cannot continue to bail out big businesses while only giving scraps to individuals and families in need,” he said.  

Markey, Blumenthal and Warren on March 31 led a letter urging major domestic airlines to offer cash refunds to passengers who cancel their flights during the pandemic, arguing that taxpayers had effectively bailed out airlines by including $61 billion for them in a roughly $2 trillion coronavirus spending bill Congress passed that month.  

Markey said only two of the 11 airlines the senators contacted, Allegiant Air and Spirit Airlines, responded by saying they planned to offer cash refunds.   

25,000 complaints

DOT received some 25,000 air travel service complaints and inquiries in March and April, compared to the 1,500 complaints it receives in a typical month, and many of those complaints related to refunds. And an online petition urging airlines to provide full refunds when passengers cancel flights during the crisis has garnered some 250,000 signatures.  

Airlines have seen a 95 percent reduction in travel since the beginning of the crisis, according to Airlines for America and others.   

In a May 6 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of industry group Airlines for America, said offering refunds for all canceled flights could bankrupt the industry. He said his members “strictly follow and comply with all federal laws and regulations on this matter and when a refund is due under those regulations, carriers promptly provide them.”  

But that explanation didn’t fly with Blumenthal, who accused airlines of “screwing the very taxpayers whose very money is going into your pockets.”