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.

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