In the span of just 48 hours, two vital pieces of information emerged from the United States and European Union authorities. Both regions have now upheld airlines obligations to refund passengers for cancelled flights, rather than simply a voucher for future travel, as they’d greatly prefer.

The April 2nd, 2020 EU clarification joins an announcement from the United States Department Of Transportation, and both are absolutely fantastic news for passengers facing tough economic times, without the ability to travel as planned. For airlines, it’s nothing near what they were hoping for.

Airlines were attempting to circumvent the EU law requiring full refunds for flights cancelled by the airline, with a proposal in the Netherlands that instead offering a 12 month voucher, which could be converted into a refund, but only after 12 months of going unused.

The blocked move was an attempt to keep money from flowing out, until more comes in. The EU’s new Commissioner of Transport, Adina Valean offered the following…

“Airlines must refund canceled flight tickets. They can of course also offer a voucher but — and this is very important — only if the customer agrees to accept this. If the customer does not want a voucher or other proposed solution, the company must reimburse.”

If airlines don’t like the stance, that’s tough luck, because Valean will hold the European Transport Commissioner title through 2024. As a frequent traveler in Europe, I’m glad about that. On balance, Commissioner Valean cited a need for a more tailored approach to help airlines in the future, but until a day when new legislation is introduced, they must follow the rules.

Airline liquidity, or even survival concerns are no laughing matter, but until a solution which protects the rights of passengers is found, law is law. For customers seeking refunds, this is a vital reminder to airlines of their obligation.

This is the legislation we have in place. We are looking to see how we can help the airlines to cope with the liquidity problems they have now, while protecting also the rights of passengers,”

While this is excellent news for many who will find their flights cancelled, the announcement makes an important distinction travelers must understand, in order to make the correct assessment and request for their unique circumstances.

Refunds only apply if the airline cancels your flight. If you cancel, either out of uncertainty, ineligibility to visit your destination, health or other concerns – the airline has no obligation to offer a refund on non-refundable tickets, just a voucher during these uncertain times.

It will then become a matter for you and your travel insurance, particularly if a government is specifically advising against travel. This rule applies to all flights departing Europe, or on EU airlines only for flights originating outside the EU.

Across the pond, the US Department of Transportation is making airlines contact customers to let them know that they may have been entitled to a refund, and not just a voucher, and that unused vouchers can still be exchanged for refunds.

If you are not in need of repatriation, and are somewhere you are happy to be for the foreseeable future, it’s better to wait and see if the airline cancels your flight than to proactively cancel. Roughly 90% of the world’s flight networks have been cut, so you’d be incredibly unlucky to miss out.

But if you get panicky and call to cancel before the airline does, they owe you nothing but a voucher. These days, very few people will want to opt for a voucher, but if you can afford to, it’s helpful to airlines fighting for survival.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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15 Comments

    1. Airlines have plenty of opportunity at their disposal to incentivize vouchers. Many are doing so with 10% bonus, or upgrade and perk opportunities. I’ll choose these where possible to support airlines, but they don’t get a free hand out. If you ordered a new television last week and they told you it wouldn’t come for 6 months – would you take a voucher, or get your money back and move on?

  1. But what if you already accepted a voucher because the airline gave you a deadline of March 25th to either take the voucher or lose your money? I would obviously rather have had the money back but wasn’t given that option.

  2. Many EU citizens are unable to leave the US and their ESTA 90 day visa waivers are expiring. Visa waiver is strictly enforced and they will be barred for 10 years. Someone needs a piece on this subject.

  3. Thank you for this post. My flights have been cancelled by KLM who refuses to consider a refund despite me telling them I have no i immediate plans to travel in the next 12 months which is how long their vouchers are for.

  4. Dear Gilbert, do you have a link to the EU clarification that I can refer to in my communications to the airline? Any assistance you can provide is much appreciated. Thanks.

  5. Airlines, some of which are highly profitable, like Easyjet, stick to their own rules and do not move for the lowly passenger, if they are 3 mins late for the gate, or a little over size or weight! Why should we all change the rules in our favour now that the tables are turned. The only problem with this of course is that if we lose too many airlines, we lose competition! I am sure vouchers will be a mixed blessing, as I bet there is price gouging to come and vouchers will have to be topped up. No wine situation.

  6. My guess is that some are holding out until customers try to fight it through their credit cards. Lufthansa certainly isn’t in any hurry to refund my $2000. If I don’t see it by Wednesday I am going to open a dispute. If they refunded everyone, they’d probably be forced into receivership.

  7. I have an open-jaw ticket, scheduled to depart LAX on Air France on April 16th. This flight has been cancelled, yet AF has yet to notify me. My return was on DL codeshare flights from
    AMS-LHR-LAX on KL/VS, on May 4th, which is still in my active AF reservation.
    Given that my outbound flight was cancelled, am I entitled to a full refund from AF?
    Thanks for your assistance.

  8. This would have been great advice about 2 weeks ago before I canceled my flight due to the event I was attending being canceled. My voucher is only good for 6 months and will likely not be used because the event is annual. The airline really should have refunded my money because the flight time had already been changed 3 times. Hopefully they will let me extend the voucher expiration date. Otherwise I’m out of the cash.

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