If an airline convinces you to cancel your flight during the coronavirus pandemic, can you still get a refund? That’s what Lon Allan is asking today.
In March, Allan was sitting at home, minding his own business when an email from United Airlines arrived. At first blush, it seemed the airline had concern for Allan’s possible need to cancel his upcoming flight over coronavirus. But scratch the surface, and the motivation behind this email becomes crystal clear. Unfortunately, Allan didn’t recognize the friendly overture wasn’t all it seemed until it was too late.
Now Allan wants help retrieving the $8,631 he paid for the flight that United Airlines convinced him to cancel.
But is that possible? (update)
To say that COVID-19 has hit the airline industry hard is an understatement. The coronavirus pandemic has forced airlines to cancel flights at a rate previously unimaginable. To avoid issuing the refunds that are required by law, the carriers are getting crafty. Allan’s tale illustrates one way an airline can try to sidestep those regulations.
Planning a vacation before coronavirus hit
Allan and his wife intended to vacation for two weeks in Israel this spring. They splurged on business class tickets for the 22-hour journey from San Francisco to Tel Aviv. The couple would be flying in United Airlines’ Polaris cabin.
Although the tickets came at a premium, the Allans reasoned that the Polaris experience would be well worth it for the lengthy flight. After purchasing the $8,631 tickets, the duo printed the confirmation and happily looked forward to their trip.
But then coronavirus hit the world, and everything changed.
A mandatory self-quarantine in Israel — and everywhere else
In mid-March, concerns about the coronavirus were reaching a fever pitch. Israel announced a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for all passengers arriving internationally. At the same time, United Airlines drastically reduced its flights to Israel. As a result, the Allans’ nonstop flight changed to a connection through Newark.
Although the Allans’ trip was still five weeks away, they began to suspect they might not be going. However, they still held some hope that the situation might improve, and they accepted the schedule change.
Every day, the couple checked for updates on the United Airlines website. They heeded the instructions asking that customers not call the airline unless their flight was in the next 72 hours. This would allow passengers with immediate coronavirus flight cancellation problems to more easily reach customer service.
United Airlines asked if we would like to cancel our flight to protect us during the coronavirus pandemic
With that guidance in mind, the Allans were surprised to receive an email from United Airlines on March 22. The representative asked if the coronavirus crisis had caused the couple’s plans to change.
Knowing that United Airlines would owe the duo a full refund if it canceled the flights, Allan asked about the chances of cancellation.
Do you think that United is going to cancel its April 16 NY to Tel Aviv flight? They’ve already canceled their April 16 San Francisco to Tel Aviv nonstop that we booked. Are we “better off” if United cancels rather than if I cancel in terms of receiving a refund? If so, then should I not cancel but wait for United to cancel? Your advice is greatly appreciated. (Allan to the United Airlines representative)
The answer to all of Allans’ questions was most certainly “Yes.” However, that isn’t the answer he received. The agent told him that to protect the value of his ticket, he should cancel the flight. Then he could reschedule after the coronavirus crisis passes.
If you are not going to travel then, yes, the reservation should be canceled. Canceling the reservation will preserve the value of the tickets. You will still have the option to re-book at a later date. Or upon the 12 months from the date of purchase, you can request a refund. (United Airlines to Allan)
*Post-publication note: This United Airlines agent’s title is “Senior Manager” and she’s based in United Airlines Corporate Support Center in Chicago.
“Does United Airlines owe me a refund if it cancels my flight?”
Not actually seeing the answer to his question in the United Airlines agent’s response, Allan tried once more. He pointed out that by that time, Israel had imposed even stricter coronavirus quarantine rules. All incoming passengers to Israel are now required to enter a 14-day government-run quarantine at the traveler’s expense.
Allan expressed his belief that Israel’s new coronavirus quarantine requirements would force United Airlines to cancel his flight.
Allan asked again if it made more sense to wait to cancel.
The agent responded with yet another nonanswer to his specific question. She implies that he must cancel to “preserve” the $8,631 value.
If you decide not to use your ticket value for a different trip and want to apply for a refund, then you are able to apply for the refund on December 30, 2020, regardless of the operational status of the EWR(NY)-TLV flight scheduled on April 16, 2020.
Again in order to preserve the value of your tickets, you must cancel the reservation. If you need me to cancel the reservation for you, please let me know.
Thank you for your patience and understanding during this challenging time. (United Airlines to Allan)
United Airlines and coronavirus win, this passenger canceled his flight
With an uneasy feeling but not willing to risk the loss of over $8,000 during the coronavirus pandemic, Allan agreed to cancel the couple’s flight. The agent informed him that she would email him a confirmation of all the details of their discussion.
Many hours later, though, when the confirmation never arrived, Allan’s uneasy feeling grew. Several days later, when he did finally receive a notice of the canceled flight, it made him more alarmed.
The email contained none of the details that the agent had discussed. It didn’t confirm a future travel credit or mention any possibility of a refund in December. In fact, the notice didn’t actually confirm anything except the cancellation.
“Note that this only says that I MAY have a flight credit,” Allan explained. “Nothing more.”
Allan’s next email was to the Elliott Advocacy team.
Coronavirus flight cancellation confusion: Can the Elliott Advocacy team help?
When Allan’s request for help landed on my desk, it appeared that his case was one of a passenger who canceled too soon. We’ve repeatedly warned our readers that canceling too soon during the coronavirus pandemic can have enormous financial consequences.
However, when Allan sent me the entire paper trail between himself and the United agent, it painted a different picture.
Several times, Allan asked the United Airlines agent if it would be better for him just to wait it out. After all, he received no benefit from canceling his flight on March 22. United Airlines received all of the benefits. The airline got to retain the $8,631 that Allan would have preferred to have in his own pocket.
There is little doubt that the United agent knew the answer to Allan’s question. Instead of answering that question, she ignored it and answered something else. This led Allan to cancel his flight prematurely when there was no benefit to him to do so. And, of course, that allowed United Airlines to keep that $8,631 in its pocket instead of his.
The Department of Transportation reiterates that airlines must provide a refund when the airline cancels a flight
In response to the coronavirus and the uptick of canceled flights, the Department of Transportation has reaffirmed that the airlines must provide a refund when the flight cancellation is airline-initiated:
The United Airlines agent should have candidly answered Allan’s question. He based his decision to cancel the flight on the employee’s insistence that it was a necessary thing.
Allan told me that he and his wife didn’t want to take a chance of leaving such an enormous investment with United during these uncertain times.
My young wife (hey, we’ve been married “only” for 52 years) is concerned. She thinks that this pandemic may last more than 12 months. So we should get a refund if possible. Can you help?
I hoped I could. It was time to see what United Airlines had to say about this situation.
Asking United Airlines to offer a refund for this coronavirus flight cancellation
I sent a request over to United Airlines and asked about Allan’s case.
The United Airlines representative who contacted Mr. Allan appears to be suggesting in the email that he must cancel his April 16 flight on that day (March 22) to protect the value of the ticket.
As we know, If United Airlines cancels a flight during the coronavirus pandemic or any other time, then there is no question that a passenger is owed a refund. There would be no reason why Mr. Allan would need to have canceled his flight three weeks ahead of the day of departure.
We’ve been encouraging passengers who want/need a refund to wait it out and not cancel weeks ahead of schedule since there is no benefit to the traveler to cancel early. Obviously, there is no way of knowing if a flight will eventually be canceled weeks ahead of schedule. So it seems unclear why this representative emailed Mr. Allan on March 22 and asked him to cancel.
Mr. Allan and his wife are an elderly couple concerned about the state of the traveling world. They are unsure if they will be able to travel again during the voucher’s validity. They are also concerned about having over $8,000 of their money unavailable to them during this troubling time in history. Mr. Allan has emailed me many times with his fears about losing the value of these tickets. They really need their money back.
Given that United is not permitted to transport this couple to Israel on April 16, even if the flight operates, it seems that they should be offered a choice of a refund or a credit. And in this case, they would like a refund. (Michelle to United Airlines)
The good news
And within hours, United Airlines came through with good news for the Allans.
Michelle, United Airlines just phoned to [offer these resolution choices]
*If United Airlines cancels the flight from NY to Israel on April 16, they’ll send me a full refund now.
*If United does not cancel our flight, then I may have a refund now — less $500 per ticket cancellation charge.
*Or I may choose a travel certificate for the full amount. We can use it on any UA flights for 24 months from the date of issue.
At this time, we will choose Door Number 1 if available. Otherwise Door Number 2 because being in our mid-70s, we want certainty.
We will keep our eyes on the flight cancellations on April 16, and I wish the Allans a wonderful replacement trip once the coronavirus pandemic passes.
*April 17 update:
Although United Airlines did operate the international portion of this itinerary, it canceled the first leg of the Allans’ journey. After a bit of prodding, it processed the full refund for the couple yesterday.
Coronavirus flight cancellation tips
- Do not cancel before the airline cancels
Many travelers are looking for a quick resolution to their coronavirus travel dilemmas. But canceling too soon will just add to the problems. Please make sure that you will benefit from canceling before you do so. If there isn’t a benefit to canceling, then wait it out.
- Don’t be a no-show for your flight
But remember, if the airline does not cancel your flight, you will need to cancel before the day of departure. If you allow yourself to be a no-show you could end up losing the entire value of the ticket.
- Check the current temporary coronavirus cancellation policies
If you have a trip planned in the coming days and weeks, make sure to bookmark this article — it contains all the latest travel-related coronavirus cancellation policies. We’re updating it daily.
- Bookmark your airline and other travel provider’s websites
Coronavirus cancellation policies are changing daily — sometimes by the hour. Check and then check again before you make any decisions about your future flights and other travel plans.
- Make sure you understand the terms of cancellation
Before you cancel your flight, whether during the coronavirus crisis or not, make sure you understand the cancellation terms. If a representative of a company is asking you to agree to something, ask for the specifics in writing. Don’t blindly accept the deal.
- Confirm the expiration dates and terms of the vouchers
If you’re considering accepting a future flight voucher, make sure you understand its terms as well. Carefully check the expiration date. You don’t want to end up on the wrong side of that expiration date later.
- Spend your voucher quickly
As soon as this terrible time passes, spend your voucher quickly. A voucher is worth nothing should it expire or the airline or company goes out of business. When booking future travel, purchase a trip insurance policy that includes coverage if your travel provider goes bankrupt. That move can protect you.
- File a complaint with the Department of Transportation
If you think your airline has mishandled your coronavirus flight cancellation, file a complaint with the Department of transportation. Here is how to file a complaint with the DOT.
(Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)
Stay safe and remember that the Elliott Advocacy team is always here to help — 24 hours a day, seven days a week.