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Airlines

U.S. DOT Fields Over 3,000 Refund Complaints as COVID-19 Pandemic Began

U.S. DOT Fields Over 3,000 Refund Complaints as COVID-19 Pandemic Began
Joe Cortez

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, airlines received a spike of complaints from consumers wanting refunds. Over the first three months of 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation fielded over 3,000 complaints against all airlines combined.

As the novel Coronavirus outbreak forced flyers to change their flight plans in the opening months of 2020, many experienced difficulties getting a refund on their airfare. The problem was so bad, the U.S. Department of Transportation received over 3,000 complaints about refunds during the first quarter, according to the May 2020 Air Travel Consumer Report.

Which Airline Received the Most Complaints?

Data from the DOT’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings shows domestic carriers had 1,429 complaints filed against them, with 94 percent came in March 2020 alone. Among all categories, refunds accounted for over 40 percent of all consumer filings. Leading all the carriers was United Airlines, which had 653 complains over refunds in the first quarter.

Complicating things from United were the continued changes as the COVID-19 situation began. Twice in March, United issued updates on when passengers qualify for refunds. First, the airline declared flyers could only get a refund if their scheduled departure time was delayed by 25 hours or more – a change from the original two-hour change. Days later, the airline changed it again to increasingly vague language: “The scheduled departure or arrival time significantly changes.”

In comparison, American Airlines received 163 complaints over refunds, while Southwest Airlines had 123 complaints filed against them. Among the other major carriers, JetBlue received 108 complaints, discount carrier Frontier Airlines received 102, while Delta Air Lines lead the competition with only 35 refund complaints.

International carriers weren’t immune to refund problems. Among all the foreign airlines, Mexican low-cost carrier Volaris received 300 complaints over refunds, and an additional 646 over reservations, ticketing and boarding – leading the entire group. Norwegian Air received 95 complaints for refunds, while TAP Air Portugal had 67 complaints.

Complaints and Issues Dramatically Increase from COVID-19 

The complaints are a unique situation, due to the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the effective grounding of worldwide airlines. In the first quarter of 2020, U.S.-based airlines received 2.01 complaints for every 100,000 boarded passengers, compared to 0.82 per 100,000 enplanements in the first quarter of 2019.

For United, complaints increased nearly five-fold compared to the same time in 2019, with complaints per 100,000 enplaned flyers going from 1.05 to 4.96. Frontier Airlines, which had 2.32 complaints per 100,000 passengers in the first quarter of 2019, doubled their average to 4.78 in the first quarter of 2020.

As expected, cancelled flights also increased significantly during the first quarter of 2020. Combined, domestic carriers cancelled 6.68 percent of their flights between January and March 2020, compared to 2.55 percent of flights in the same time period in 2019. Total cancelled operations ranged between 5.48 percent at Alaska Airlines, to 8.59 percent at United Airlines.

Other Statistics Remain Constant

Despite the fewer flights, complaints about mishandled luggage remained flat over the first quarter of the year. American Airlines had the most baggage errors, with 7.4 mishandled bags per 1,000 loaded between January and March 2020. During the same period last year, American mishandled 7.64 per 1,000 loaded. United mishandled 5.6 bags per 1,000 loaded in the first quarter, compared to 6.99 the same time last year, while Delta Air Lines mishandled 4.57 per 1,000 loaded in the opening months of 2020. In the first quarter of 2019, Delta mishandled 4.78 percent of bags.

View Comments (2)

2 Comments

  1. strickerj

    June 17, 2020 at 3:22 pm

    I submitted my complaint against Air Canada today… My flight was canceled (in fact, service to my city suspended entirely) and I was offered a voucher, only valid for the original travelers. Since I wasn’t sure we’d be rescheduling the trip, I submitted the refund request form, citing the DOT notice reminding the airlines that they owe refunds upon request for flights they canceled. That was 6 weeks ago and they haven’t responded, but according to the refund policy on their website, they’ve retroactively changed the contract for tickets already sold, which I guarantee no court in the US or Canada would agree with. I’m never giving them another cent.

  2. dp118

    June 18, 2020 at 8:47 am

    It’s no surprise, with hindsight, that United had the most complaints. They are a high volume domestic/international carrier. They continuously modified their policies seemingly on a daily basis making it difficult for customers to know exactly what they were and weren’t entitled to.

    Like many of you, UA cancelled my International flights from the US to Europe in March and April. I fought with inflexible customer reps for three weeks to get refunds versus vouchers. I complained to the DOT. UA’s policies changed as they grappled with increasing cancellations and refund demands. Three days before my flights, after escalating through CRs to supervisors, and with DOT’s very helpful public statement, I received a refund confirmation. Pressure to accept vouchers was intense.

    This is old news to many who faced similar circumstances. It illustrates the degree the decision making chaos occurring within airline management as it came to terms with the reality of the Covid-19 crisis. Understandable perhaps but very frustrating for customers.

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