Thousands of Complaints Prompt Investigation of 20 U.S. Airlines Over Pandemic Refunds

The Department of Transportation has launched an investigation into more than 20 U.S. airlines after thousands of complaints were received from customers who were denied or delayed in getting refunds for flights canceled or changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Associated Press reported. A new report released by the department said that of the 20 investigations that it initiated, 18 of them are still in progress.

Consumer Reports and the Department of Transportation collected "tremendously high numbers of complaints" regarding United and Frontier Airlines, according to Bill McGee, an aviation expert at Consumer Reports. McGee did not specify specific numbers on the complaints, but the Department of Transportation said that it received around 30,000 complaints about airline refunds during the pandemic, according to the AP.

At least nine airlines adjusted their guidelines to stipulate that passengers whose flights were canceled or adjusted significantly were entitled to receive refunds, rather than just travel vouchers when the changes were made, the Department of Transportation said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Travelers Check In for Flights
The Transportation Department is detailing efforts that it is making to help airline customers who didn't get refunds after their flights were canceled during the early days of the pandemic last year. Travelers use the self-service kiosk to check in and pay for luggage at the American Airlines terminal in Miami on April 29, 2021. Marta Lavandier/AP Photo

The department disclosed that an examination into United Airlines was dropped in January after the airline took steps resulting in "thousands" of customers getting refunds.

In June, the department announced that it was seeking a $25.5 million fine against Air Canada, saying the airline improperly delayed refunds for more than 5,000 passengers by up to 13 months. The airline is fighting the penalty.

The Transportation Department did not identify the other 18 airlines still under investigation in Thursday's report to the White House, but a footnote identified 10 U.S. carriers and 15 foreign ones — a who's who of the industry — that it contacted about the matter last year.

"Air Canada is far from being the only carrier that violated DOT refund rules," McGee said Friday.

Consumer groups and lawmakers have been raising the issue of refunds that were slow or never came since March 2020, when U.S. air travel nosedived and airlines canceled thousands of flights on short notice. Elaine Chao, who was Transportation secretary under President Donald Trump, issued a reminder to airlines of their obligation to offer refunds when they — and not the customer — cancel a trip, but refrained from stronger action against airlines.

On Friday, consumer groups praised current Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for expanding the agency's staff for handling complaints and proposing to expand refunds to times when government lockdowns cause flight cancellations. But they said more needs to be done to help consumers who are still waiting for refunds from 2020 and those who received travel vouchers that will expire.

Air Canada Fined
The Transportation Department announced in June that it was seeking fines of $25.5 million against Air Canada on the grounds that it improperly delayed refunds for more that 5,000 passengers. Air Canada flight AC7151 to Seoul taxis on the runway while Air Canada flight AC551 from Los Angeles lands at Vancouver International Airport on February 20, 2021 in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada. Andrew Chin/Getty Images