What happens to your airline credit if you don't want to travel? A Phoenix woman's story

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Melissa Yeager
Arizona Republic

A couple weeks ago, I received an email from a reader named Ellen who needed help with a travel voucher she was forced to take last spring. Ellen, who asked that I not use her last name but wanted me to share her story, is in her 80s. 

When I chatted with her on the phone, she said she and her husband are not in great health and had planned to take their last big trip — a tour in Canada — last July.

Then came the pandemic and, like many passengers who found their flights canceled in those early months, she was forced to take an Air Canada travel voucher for $1,000 instead of receiving a refund. 

With half of the 24-month period she was granted to use the travel voucher almost gone and Canada recently imposing even stricter travel restrictions, it seems unlikely Ellen will ever take that trip. She reached out to see if there was any way to get her money back. 

"A thousand dollars is a lot for us to lose," she told me. 

Thousands of COVID-19 travel complaints

The DOT did issue some guidance to airlines reminding them of their responsibilities to provide refunds for canceled flights.

Ellen is not alone. Flight cancellations related to the pandemic ushered in a tsunami of complaints from frustrated passengers to the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

Last November, in the most recent statistics available, the DOT got 3,242 complaints from consumers trying to get airline refunds, compared to 112 complaints over refunds in November 2019.

Yet that recent figure, despite including the Thanksgiving travel period, is down from the  6,976 complaints filed in August 2020 when airlines started implementing more flexible change and refund policies. And it's significantly down from the more than 25,000 complaints received in March and April at the beginning of the pandemic. 

Consumer Reports has seen similar levels of complaints. Bill McGee, aviation adviser  with Consumer Reports' advocacy division, said that while other countries have legal protections that outline what compensation passengers are entitled to when their flights are delayed or canceled, the United States does not have similar protections.

The Department of Transportation only requires a refund if the airline cancels the flight. Anything else the consumer may receive is outlined in the airline's contract of carriage which is drafted by the airlines.

"They're for the airlines and by the airlines so they benefit the airlines," McGee said about how the terms are written. 

For instance, McGee said, there's typically a section outlining "force majeure" that says the airline is not responsible for "acts of God" such as hurricanes, snowstorms, terrorist attacks or a pandemic. 

"Our argument at Consumer Reports is consumers deserve the same rights. None of us saw the pandemic coming before last year either," McGee said. 

The DOT did issue some guidance to airlines reminding them of their responsibilities to provide refunds for canceled flights. But McGee said other loopholes also caused problems for consumers. For instance, DOT regulations don't apply to third-party travel providers such as online agencies Expedia and Orbitz. 

"We believe that's a loophole that should be closed," McGee said. 

What to do if you have a travel voucher

An airline landing at night.

Though every situation is different, there are things you can try before you give up entirely on getting your money back. 

If you have a travel voucher, double check when it expires. So many sad stories I hear about money lost to the airlines start with "I forgot when my voucher expired." Make a  list of all your vouchers so you don't forget any and set calendar alerts as their expiration dates draw near.

If you can no longer travel, try reaching out to the airline. Sometimes in extenuating circumstances and with proof such as a doctor's note, the airline will try to help. Know that there is no legal requirement for it to do this.

If you don't get the answer you like, consider calling back to talk to someone else. 

Call your credit card company and challenge the charge if you think you were entitled to a refund. Make sure you tried to work with the travel provider first. Document your communications and deadlines of when the company said it would respond.

If nothing else works, file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation or the Arizona attorney general's office at https://www.transportation.gov or https://www.azag.gov.

'Those who don't want to travel should get refunds'

But what about customers like Ellen, who don't want to travel at all now?

Ellen made several attempts with Air Canada to get her money back. She wrote the Canadian government. She tried to challenge the charge on her credit card. 

None of that was successful.

I reached out to Air Canada on Ellen's behalf but no one responded to my request for information. I'll update this piece when I hear back.

It's scenarios like Ellen's where McGee wants to see the airlines step up.

"If not, you know the DOT needs to step in, Congress eventually, to ensure that those who want to travel eventually don't have expirations on their vouchers because none of us can predict exactly when it is going to be safer to travel," McGee said.

"And those who don't want to travel should get refunds." 

You can connect with Arizona Republic Consumer Travel Reporter Melissa Yeager through email at melissa.yeager@azcentral.com. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram

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