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Can I Get a Refund When My Flight is Cancelled Due to the COVID-19 coronavirus Pandemic?


Since first being identified in November 2019 in the City of Wuhan, PRC, the COVID-19 coronavirus has spread across the world, causing a human tragedy with tens of thousands sick and many deaths.

The pandemic is having an enormous impact on the travel industry, ranging from hotel and cruise ship quarantines to airlines halting flights in several key regions.

Flight and hotel bookings are down 70 to 90%, which is understandable as travelers face uncertain times at the moment. In response to this precipitous drop in demand, airlines all over the world have slashed flights amid the outbreak and some have even halted their operations. For example:

  • Cathay Pacific cancelled 95% of all its flights in April & May.
  • Lufthansa grounded its Airbus A380 aircraft, and cut 95% of its long haul travel capacity.
  • Emirates stopped flying for two weeks (but is now resuming a limited flight schedule).
  • Turkish Airlines and South African Airways have temporarily suspended all international flights.
  • Air Canada suspended most of its international flights
  • Austrian Airlines and Brussels Airlines are temporarily grounded.
  • Korean Air grounded 80% of its international capacity.
  • United Airlines cancelled all long haul flights.

In an attempt to deal with the crisis, several airlines have built more flexibility into new bookings, and have decided to waive change fees for some travel periods. In addition, to conserve cash as much as possible, airlines are doing all they can to offer vouchers or travel credits instead of a cash refund for cancelled flights. But as long as your flight is leaving from or departing to an airport in the USA or the EU, you are protected by law in the scenario that your flight is cancelled.

The US Department of Transportation requires airlines to give passengers the option of a refund in the event a flight is cancelled for flights to, within, or from the United States. Here’s a quote directly from the DOT website:

  • If your flight is cancelled, most airlines will rebook you for free on their next flight to your destination as long as the flight has available seats.
  • If your flight is cancelled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation – even for non-refundable tickets. You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment.
  • If the airline offers you a voucher for future travel instead of a refund, you should ask the airline about any restrictions that may apply, such as blackout and expiration dates, advanced booking requirements, and limits on number of seats.

The US Department of Transportation issued an enforcement notice for the Coronavirus pandemic, reminding US and foreign airlines that they are obligated to provide a prompt refund to passengers for flights to, within, or from the United States when the carrier cancels the passenger’s scheduled flight or makes a significant schedule change and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier. The obligation of airlines to provide refunds, including the ticket price and any optional fee charged for services a passenger is unable to use, does not cease when the flight disruptions are outside of the carrier’s control e.g. a result of government restrictions. The DOT has seen an increase in consumer complaints related to flight refunds.

More or less the same rules applies for flights to, within, or from the EU. In light of the mass cancellations and delays passengers and transport operators face due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Commission has provided legal certainty on how to apply EU passenger rights. In case of cancellations the transport provider must reimburse or re-route the passengers. If passengers themselves decide to cancel their journeys, reimbursement of the ticket depends on its type, and companies may offer vouchers for subsequent use. The commission published guidelines, which provide much-needed legal certainty on how to apply EU passenger rights in a coordinated manner across the Union. At the same time, the guidelines published by the European Union clarify that the current circumstances are “extraordinary”, with the consequence that certain rights such as compensation in case of flight cancellation less than two weeks from departure date may not be invoked.

So, in case you are confronted with a flight cancellation for flights to, within, or from the United States or EU, do the following:

  • Do not cancel the flight yourself. If you do not wait for the airline to cancel your flight and decide to cancel yourself, you may lock yourself out of any cash refund option.
  • Do not accept a voucher. Airlines are doing everything they can to encourage people to accept vouchers rather than cash refunds. Be careful not to accept this ofer, because once you do, you’re not entitled to a refund anymore. Also, some airlines will probably go bankrupt because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so there’s always risk that you will lose your money if you accept a voucher instead of a refund.
  • Request a refund online.
  • Airlines should comply with your refund request within a certain time frame. If they do not, you have a few options:
    • Reach out to the airline again and again, and again. Use the airline’s social media (Facebook, Twitter, ec …) to bring attention to the issue.
    • Initiate a chargeback with your credit card issuer.
    • File a complaint with the Department of Transportation (USA) or the European Union (and let the airline know that you are doing so).
    • If the airline canceled your flight and you were already given a voucher, reach out to the airline and tell them that you would like a cash refund instead of a voucher. If that would not work, keep in mind that most of the vouchers given by the airlines are valid for 1 year. At the end of that year, provided that that particular airline is still operating/operating under the same name, you can still request a cash refund from most airlines.

In Summary

When you are confronted with a flight cancellation in these unprecedented times, you’re entitled to a cash refund according to EU & DOT regulations. Unfortunately, airlines seem to be doing everything in their power not to honor this and to get passengers to accept a voucher rather than a refund for cancellations.

Make sure you know your legal rights as a passenger, and act accordingly.

Have a happy healthy Easter and Passover weekend, stay home, Keep the Faith!

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S. Jack Heffernan Ph.D. Economist at Knightsbridge holds a Ph.D. in Economics and brings with him over 25 years of trading experience in Asia and hands on experience in Venture Capital, he has been involved in several start ups that have seen market capitalization over $500m and 1 that reach a peak market cap of $15b. He has managed and overseen start ups in Crypto, Mining, Shipping, Technology and Financial Services.