US proposes to increase refund protections for air travelers

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Department of Transportation is proposing to require airlines to offer passengers a refund if their flight schedule is changed significantly or if the airline makes major changes to their itinerary.

The proposed rule announced Wednesday would require airlines to issue refunds if their departure or arrival time changes by three hours or more for a domestic flight or at least six hours for an international flight.

Refunds would also be due if the airline changes the passenger’s departure or arrival airport, adds stopovers to their itinerary or causes a “significant degradation” of the travel experience by switching to another type of aircraft. .

The rule would even apply to travelers who buy non-refundable tickets, which generally cost less and are preferred by many leisure travellers.

The proposal comes after the department was inundated with complaints from passengers whose flights were canceled or changed – or who were afraid to fly during the early months of the pandemic – and who were unable to get refunds.

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Airlines prefer to distribute travel vouchers instead of refunds.

The ministry is proposing to require airlines and ticket agents to give vouchers that do not expire to passengers who are told not to travel during a pandemic for health reasons or because borders are closed.

The proposal faces a public comment period and likely opposition from airlines. Their trade group, Airlines for America, did not immediately comment.

Currently, airlines are required to offer refunds to passengers whose flights are canceled or significantly changed, but this has never defined a cancellation or a significant change. For this reason, airlines have challenged the Department of Transport’s power to force them to pay refunds.

“When Americans buy a plane ticket, they need to get to their destination safely, reliably and affordably,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “This proposed new rule would protect the rights of travelers and help ensure they get the timely refunds they deserve from airlines.”

Consumer complaints filed with the department increased nearly sevenfold in 2020 from the previous year, and 87% were for refunds.

The ministry will receive public comments on the proposal for 90 days. A group that advises the department and includes consumer advocates has scheduled an online meeting to discuss the rule for Aug. 22.

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