After a surge in  traveler complaints about airline ticket refunds during the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued its second warning in as many months to airlines on Tuesday.

The agency said it has received more than 25,000 air travel service complaints in March and April. That compares to an average of 1,500 in a typical month.

“The Department has received an unprecedented volume of complaints from passengers and is examining this issue closely to ensure that airlines’ policies and practices conform to DOT’s refund rules,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao said in a statement. “The department is asking all airlines to revisit their customer service policies and ensure they are as flexible and considerate as possible to the needs of passengers who face financial hardship during this time.”

In April, the agency warned airlines that they are required to provide a refund to travelers if their flight is canceled or significantly changed by the airline.  A key problem: the DOT does not define significant, so airline policies vary and some are using that lack of clear guidance as a way to get out of issuing refunds.

Because “cancellation” and “significant change” are not defined in the context of ticket refunds, airlines may develop reasonable interpretations of those terms, the DOT said in the enforcement notice.

"However, the Aviation Enforcement Office expects carriers to honor those reasonable interpretations in implementing their refund obligations and will focus its enforcement actions on instances where a carrier has disregarded the requirement to offer refunds, failed to honor its refund policies, or where it is determined that the carrier’s refund policies or practices are otherwise “unfair or deceptive,'' the DOT said.

Frequent flier Christopher Wilson said United Airlines repeatedly tried to tell him he was not eligible for a refund even though the airline canceled his Phoenix-Houston nonstop flight in late March.He complained to the DOT and a representative sent him a letter saying it appears he was eligible for a refund and that the agency would forward the complaint to United for a response.

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United still didn't budge and told him via multiple emails that they offered him alternative flights so he wasn't eligible for a refund on his $973 first class nonrefundable ticket.  Wilson said the new flights were later in the day than his booked flight and required connections in San Antonio or Austin, Texas.

Fed up, he disputed the charge with his credit card company, Bank of America. United had 30 days to respond, he said, and must not have disputed it because on Monday, he received a statement credit for the amount of his ticket.

Wilson said United is the only major airline he dealt with that played hardball. Getting refunds from Delta, where he has no frequent flier status, was a breeze, he said, and American, too, once he figured out how to dodge their attempts to get him to take a credit instead of a refund.

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"United’s lost my business,'' he said. "They're the last airline I'll ever look at now.''

United has repeatedly said its policies are in line with DOT rules.

The DOT says that when airlines cancel a flight, whether because of a coronavirus public health emergency, a winter storm, a hurricane, mechanical issue or other matter, passengers are eligible for a refund even if they have a nonrefundable ticket, including those restrictive basic economy tickets. The refund must be processed within seven business days if the customer paid by credit card or 20 if they used cash or check.

Airlines don't always broadcast this option, preferring to rebook a passenger or issue a credit so they retain the revenue.

If you suspect your flight may be scrapped, you would do well to wait until the airline cancels it. Travelers who proactively cancel flights are not eligible for a cash refund, although airlines are issuing travel credits. 

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