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Complaints about airlines refusing to pay refunds for canceled flights during the pandemic have jumped more than 5,500 percent in the past year. Some customers are still trying to fight airlines for refunds, while others who have received a loan or vouchers for a future trip instead find that those loans may expire soon.
And this infuriates some consumers who, as taxpayers, have come to the aid of their airlines as they lost billions during the pandemic.
“It offends me,” said Scott Slonim of the Chicago suburb of Mundelain, Illinois. He and his wife, Nancy, had planned a special escape in late March 2020.
“We had to fly to Washington, DC to get together with our cousin and his wife to see the cherry blossoms we had never seen before,” said Scott Slonim.
The couple booked American Airlines flights well in advance. But about two weeks before they left, in mid-March, when the scope of the growing coronavirus pandemic became apparent, their doctor convinced them not to go.
“I’m 70 and she’s 70, each of us has basic conditions,” said the retired lawyer.
The pandemic will soon destroy air travel, with the number of people flying falling by 96% from pre-pandemic levels by mid-April. Airlines have cut schedules and canceled thousands of flights, but American Airlines has not yet canceled Slonims flights, so Scott says he contacted the airline and demanded a refund.
“We received a response to a form from American Airlines, treating it as a cancellation, saying that we had canceled, which in fact, I guess we did, but ignoring our request for a refund,” he said.
There’s a reason for this: If the airline cancels your flight, federal regulations will refund their plane tickets, but if you cancel, you may not be lucky. The American eventually canceled Slonims flights to and from Washington, DC, but since Slonims canceled first, technically, they should not be reinstated.
So Slonim says he has contacted the company again.
“We started our journey through the internal bureaucracy of American Airlines to reach a human being, and eventually they responded by saying, ‘Well, we can have credit,'” he said. “Which is like giving us wood nickel.”
They again turned to the Americans, in writing and over the phone, and to consumer groups for help. They even filed a complaint with the US Department of Transportation, but to no avail.
An American spokeswoman says the airline is giving customers extra flexibility to make sure those who want to change their travel plans have plenty of options to do so, and now American has extended the time to use flight credits until on March 2022, the airline also eliminated most change fees for domestic and international flights.
But given their age and health, the elephants say they have no plans to fly again soon and fear they will lose the $ 1,300 they spent on tickets.
After contacting NPR, the airline reviewed the details of Slonim’s case and the spokeswoman said she would now refund Slonim’s plane tickets.
But they are not alone, feeling as if they are getting avoided or worse by the airlines.
The US Department of Transportation has been flooded with more than 90,000 such complaints since March last year. That’s 57 times more complaints than the 1,500 filed in 2019.
“I’ll tell you, I’ve never seen a single issue cause so much anger among consumers,” said Bill McGee, an aviation adviser and longtime consumer advocate at Consumer Reports. “It’s out of the charts and it’s been going on for 14 months.”
“Airlines have been acting reproachfully since day one on this issue,” he said.
McGee estimates that airlines have $ 10 billion to $ 15 billion to reimburse customers, and adds insult to injuries, he says, is the fact that airlines have received billions of federal funds to keep them afloat.
“It was given by the taxpayers, not once, not twice, but three times, without any discounts for consumers,” says McGee.
But the industrial group Airlines for America says its seven airlines have already reimbursed nearly $ 13 billion to customers at a time when they are bleeding in cash at $ 100 million a day last year. A spokeswoman told NPR that these refunds amounted to almost 20% of operating income last year, in addition to the billions of dollars in travel loans they had issued to customers.
But now there is a problem with these travel loans and vouchers for future trips.
“These vouchers are coming right now,” said Melanie Lieberman, travel editor at The Points Guy travel website.
She says many airlines extend the validity of these travel loans until later this year or until 2022, but notes that getting an extension over the expiration of the loan may depend on when you bought your ticket and when you have planned to travel. And Lieberman says that the policy of each airline is different.
“The best thing you can do is double-check these dates, make sure you know the fine print, the details of when your voucher should be used and when your trip should be booked,” says Lieberman.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. And Edward Markey, D-Mass., Called on airlines to offer cash refunds instead of credit for flights canceled during the pandemic and to abolish the validity dates of travel vouchers. They say they will propose legislation to force airlines to do both.
The Ministry of Transport has issued two notices of implementation over the past year, reminding airlines and ticket agents of their obligation to provide refunds for canceled flights, and this week the agency updated its guidelines for consumers who believe they are entitled to a refund.
A DOT spokesman said investigations into the huge number of complaints were ongoing, but added that “thousands of passengers who were initially denied reimbursement have received or are receiving the necessary reimbursements”.
Meanwhile, although complaints about denied refunds for trips they were unable to take last year, a new survey of those who flew found that airline customer satisfaction during the pandemic reached a record.