Transportation officials weigh new rules on airline refunds

The U.S. Department of Transportation plans to propose new airline consumer protections in coming months to address travelers’ struggles to get refunds.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated problems consumers face with airlines. A report released Thursday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group says complaints related to refunds have continued to run higher this year than pre-pandemic levels.

Airlines often give out vouchers instead of refunds when passengers with non-refundable fares cancel their travel plans.

The federal DOT said it expects to issue a proposal for new rules for ticket refunds before a meeting in late March.

During a DOT advisory committee meeting Thursday, industry group Airlines for America said complaints about refunds have abated from the peak early in the pandemic and that carriers are giving more refunds to passengers.

Major carriers, including Delta, also have discontinued change fees.

But when customers buy tickets then decide later not to take the flights, airlines shouldn’t be required to issue refunds for non-refundable tickets, the airline industry group said. Instead, passengers who want flexibility should pay more to buy refundable fares, the group said.

Jacob van Cleef, PIRG consumer watchdog associate, said some customers have no use for vouchers. They may travel infrequently and may not have a chance to use the credits, and airfare represents a large outlay of funds.

Van Cleef said consumers have no control over how long the pandemic will continue, what new travel restrictions are rolled out and whether events they are traveling to are canceled. “The solution is to refund the customers,” he said.

Meanwhile, the White House on Monday implemented new restrictions on travelers from eight southern African nations and on Thursday announced stricter protocols for international travelers to the United States. COVID-19 tests will be required within one day of departure for the U.S. And the federal mask requirement on airlines and public transportation was extended through March 18.