Delta slow to pay refunds after canceling flights

A Delta ticket agent cleans his work station while waiting for passengers in Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson’s international terminal on Monday, March 30, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton

A Delta ticket agent cleans his work station while waiting for passengers in Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson’s international terminal on Monday, March 30, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton

Some airline customers are having problems getting their money back as airlines, including Delta, steer them toward accepting credit instead of refunds, even when the airlines are the ones cancelling the flights.

The airlines are facing a cash crunch due to plummeting traffic amid the coronavirus. But many customers are facing cash crunches of their own as they lose jobs or business because of the pandemic.

The issue captured the attention of the Department of Transportation and some Democratic U.S. senators who urged airlines to issue refunds, especially in light of the multi-billion dollar bailout they are getting.

"The ongoing pandemic is placing enormous financial strain on millions of Americans, and families need cash to pay for essentials such as food, housing, and medical care," according to the senators' letter to airline CEOs.

“It would be unacceptable to us for your company to hold onto travelers’ payments for canceled flights instead of refunding them, especially in light of the $25 billion bailout that the airline industry just received from Congress,” says the letters from Democratic senators including Ed Markey, Richard Blumenthal, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar.

In light of the effects of the pandemic and bailout, some flyers are hoping for refunds even if they are ones who had to cancel a flight.

DJ Jaffe, who lives in New York and runs a small nonprofit, said he booked a Delta flight to Austin for a mental health conference, which was canceled. He canceled his trip and got a credit valid until the end of the year — but he doesn’t know if he’ll fly before then.

He said he doesn’t think it’s right “to have Delta take the money and then get money from the government because they say they’re losing money.”

Agents for Atlanta-based Delta have told some customers that refunds for flights it canceled are not available at this time.

The U.S. Department of Transportation says on its website that a passenger on a flight canceled by the airline is entitled to a refund.

The DOT said it is aware of consumer complaints regarding airlines' refund practices and is reviewing the issue. The agency also said consumers can file an online complaint with the DOT.

Delta has an online form on its website to allow customers to apply for a refund, but it and other airlines have been steering customers to instead accept vouchers or eCredits — which allows the airline to keep the money.

Delta issued a statement saying if it cancels a flight, customers will first be invited to rebook. If they don’t, “the value of the ticket becomes an eCredit…. Alternatively, eligible customers are able to request a refund,” Delta said.

Delta apologized “for any confusion or inconsistencies some of our customers have experienced during this unprecedented global event.”

While Delta normally gives refunds within seven days for credit card purchases, it now could take up to 21 business days.

That means customers could be waiting more than four weeks for refunds — at a time when many are experiencing job cuts and running short on cash with bills due.

Travelers canceling trips due to COVID-19 are also encountering frustration when asking for refunds. While airlines have added more flexibility for bookings due to coronavirus restrictions, the law typically does not require them to give refunds for non-refundable tickets when the customer cancels the booking.

Delta is not the only airline frustrating customers.

Chicago-based United Airlines is telling travelers: “If your trip was canceled, you can use the value of the ticket toward future travel.”

It also has an online form to request a refund, but says its policy is that customers whose international flights are disrupted will get a 12-month credit, and if the credit is unused it will be refunded after that period.