Airline refund rules might be changing. What that would mean for Charlotte travelers

·3 min read
Screens show flight departures and cancellations at Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Saturday, January 22, 2022 in Charlotte, NC. The weather system grounded hundreds of flights. As of 12:30 p.m. Saturday, at least 186 flights have been canceled at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Some 140 flights were scrubbed on Friday, when Winter Storm Jasper dropped 1.9 inches of snow at the airport — a record amount for Jan. 21st. (Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez/mrodriguez@charlotteobserver.com)

A chaotic summer travel season has put a spotlight on the hurdles some face when trying to get their money back after a canceled or significantly delayed flight. Now federal officials are considering shaking up the refund process.

In a new proposal, the federal Department of Transportation outlines plans to, among other things, more clearly define what kinds of delays constitute a need to issue a refund.

The announcement comes as airport woes continue to make headlines this year, including in Charlotte.

Here’s what to know about the process for getting a refund on a canceled or delayed flight, potential changes to the process, and how to get involved in reforms:

Can you currently get a refund if your flight is canceled or delayed?

Under current transportation department policy, you’re “entitled to a refund of the ticket price and/or associated fees” if your flight is canceled and you decide against getting rebooked on a new flight.

The current rules are murkier for delayed flights.

“A passenger is entitled to a refund if the airline made a significant schedule change and/or significantly delays a flight and the passenger chooses not to travel,” the DOT states.

However, the federal agency goes on to say that it has no definition of “what constitutes a ‘significant delay’” and that whether you should get a refund will be decided on a “case-by-case basis” based on “many factors – including the length of the delay, the length of the flight, and your particular circumstances.”

It’s a policy that “has resulted in inconsistency among carriers on when passengers are entitled to refunds,” the DOT said in an August statement announcing proposed changes to the policy.

DOT-proposed changes to airline refund rules

Under the transportation department’s proposed reforms to airline refund rules, the definition of “significant” changes to a flight would be fleshed out to include instances of:

  • “Changes that affect the departure and/or arrival times by three hours or more for a domestic flight or six hours or more for an international flight;

  • Changes to the departure or arrival airport;

  • Changes that increase the number of connections in the itinerary; and

  • Changes to the type of aircraft flown if it causes a significant downgrade in the air travel experience or amenities available onboard the flight.”

The new policy would also expand protections for travelers whose plans are impacted by COVID-19, including instituting a requirement “that airlines and ticket agents provide passengers flight credits or vouchers that are valid indefinitely when passengers are unable to fly for certain pandemic related reasons, such as government-mandated bans on travel, closed borders, or passengers advised not to travel to protect their health or the health of other passengers.”

“Further, under the proposal, airlines and ticket agents that receive significant government assistance related to a pandemic would be required to issue refunds, in lieu of non-expiring travel credits or vouchers,” the DOT said in its statement.

These rules haven’t been adopted yet and are in a 90-day public comment period through early November, during which members of the public can share their views on the proposed changes with those who will decide whether to move forward.

How to share your opinion on airline refund rules proposal

If you feel strongly about the proposed changes to the rules for refunds from airlines, now is the window of opportunity to share your opinions with the transportation department while they’re still considering the shift.

You can leave a comment online by visiting regulations.gov and searching for docket number DOT-OST-2022-0089.

You can also register here to attend a virtual public meeting on the subject “Aug. 22” and request to speak during the meeting.