a black board with white text and yellow and red numbers

I was recently on Euro News discussing airline cancellation issues, and there’s a key distinction when it comes to your passenger rights. If the airline cancels, you’re entitled to a refund. If you cancel, even if travel isn’t possible, you’re left with nothing more than a voucher, at best.

This conundrum is leading airlines to play evil games with passengers, refusing to cancel flights until the last minute, in hopes of coaxing passengers into cancelling on their own. The reasons for doing so are huge, but the ethics behind it are questionable at best…

Flight Clearly Cancelled, But Not

All around the world, airlines are intentionally not cancelling flights until the very last minute, or informing customers of “schedule changes” rather than cancellations, specifically to avoid refund rules.

In recent weeks, The United States and European Union each reiterated legal guidance to airlines that if a flight is cancelled, a refund must be offered – not just a voucher. Following the guidance, too many airlines are now choosing to play games with their schedules, to avoid the ruling.

Travel to Greece is a perfect example, but it’s only one of thousands.

a black board with white text and yellow dots

Greece has already announced no air traffic in or out from most destinations through May 15th. You’d think, being that the government has already stipulated a minimum time in which flights absolutely won’t operate, that flights would be cancelled up until May 15th. You’d be wrong.

For most airlines, they’re just “sold out” right now. EasyJet is yet to cancel flights including dates as far forward as May 1st. Those with current bookings still haven’t received a cancellation email. The flight just appears “sold out”, if you want to book.

a graph with numbers and a black background

The airline knows they won’t be flying, the Greek Government knows they won’t be flying, passengers know they won’t be flying, yet airlines are taking advantage of passenger emotion in situations like these, in hopes of holding onto the cash by not cancelling.

They’re betting that before they cancel the flight, the customer will call and cancel first, exempting the airline from refunds.

It’s bad enough for passengers with previously booked flights in limbo, but in an even more predatory move to hold, or grab onto outside cash, some airlines are still selling tickets to places they know with full certainty they won’t be flying.

Here’s tickets for sale from London to Athens, for flights which 100% will not happen, since they fall before the May 15th end date.

a screenshot of a login page

For utter clarity, the United Kingdom is one of the countries stipulated by Greece where absolutely no passenger flights are allowed until the 15th. That makes this itinerary available for sale at noon on April 17th, 2020 a bit dubious.

Fight For Survival, But Isn’t It For All?

For many airlines, it’s life or death, but in a world headed for recession – if it’s not actually already there – it’s hard to think of any purchase where a consumer would buy something, not get what they ordered and be happy for someone to hold the money indefinitely.

Everyone is suffering, not just airlines.

The evil brilliance of not cancelling is that passengers are effectively forced to take matters into their own hands. Within 72 hours of a scheduled flight, passengers start to panic about their ability to get in touch with the airline and at least get something back, let alone money. On the whole, airlines are not all that easy to reach at the moment.

Because the airline successfully waits until the very last minute to cancel, smoking out nervy passengers, they’re then able to tow the line of “sorry, voucher only”, even though they know full well it will be cancelled in a matter of hours, perhaps even minutes. Evil indeed, eh?

a sign with arrows and directionsEmotional Airline Attachment

People have an emotional attachment to airlines, and air travel, and for the most part that’s a good thing. We love airlines and don’t want to see anyone out of work. And we promise not to put any more and’s into this paragraph.

If you ordered something on Amazon which never turns up, you expect a refund – right? Yet because of the emotional attachment people have to airlines and their sympathy for struggles of the industry, people are forgiving airlines for not refunding purchases which were not delivered, even though it’s breaking the law in many instances.

British Airways famously re-coded their airline refund page to remove the refund button, giving the appearance that only vouchers were available. Guess what, it’s worked – brilliantly. Know your rights, and don’t be afraid to wait the airline out too.

Your Rights And How To Win

Even if you only receive a notification of a schedule change, don’t accept it as such – in most cases the airline cancelled your flight, which caused a “schedule change” and that’s grounds for a refund. Running a Google search to confirm that the flight isn’t operating is a great way to prove to the airline that you know the deal.

If you remember one thing, and one thing only from this: if an airline cancels your flight, you’re due a full refund for travel from or within the European Union or USA. If you cancel, it’s voucher at best, and some airlines can even say you get nothing.

If you can do without the cash and are happy to accept a voucher, you’re doing a good thing for the airline industry, but only accept a voucher when the airline has been transparent and clear. If they have, and you can swing it, let them hold your future travel money, in hopes of a great sale when travel returns.

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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  1. Eight days out from date of planned flight from IAD->CPH, SAS finally told me there’s been a schedule change and flight was canceled. Even though they withdrew the inventory at least a week ago (tried to book same itinerary and no flights available until early May) but Expert Flyer showed a handful of seats still booked. They do a lot to try to encourage you to voucher it, but at one point it did say if you weren’t able to use voucher, you’d get a refund. But who knows what that would look like in a year’s time, or maybe even less for smaller airlines like SAS, will they still be in business? Hope so, but questionable. Called US line and got right through (Estonia call center), she processed the cancellation, she said refund could take up to 60 days (on Twitter they’re in the first week of March for refund requests).

    Domestically, was supposed to go DCA->EYW this past week, waited until morning of because it hadn’t canceled. Replicated itinerary that morning and showed only 7 seats taken (including our 2). Canceled, and flight went. Unreal, flying an ERJ-175 to EYW and back with not even 2 dozen pax. Wonder why they’re bleeding money? Insane. Gotta be a better way to use those slots or something.

  2. I have a booking scheduled on Air New Zealand (MEL-AKL-SYD) in late May. They’re only offering me a voucher, which is basically useless to me at this point. Do I have any recourse?

  3. Great article – thanks. Wouldn’t it be a good strategy though – if you know that you don’t want to take the flight anyway – just to wait until after departure time to contact the airline for a refund? If the flight departed, you’ll get the same voucher you’d get by doing it in advance anyway. If it didn’t depart, you can then ask for the refund. I think AA is saying you don’t need to cancel your flight in advance – are the other airlines doing this also? Thanks Gilbert.

    1. Delta is definitely one playing the auto voucher game, and if that’s ok with you, versus cash, it’s the best game in town. Not sure current state of AA refunds, but they’ve been solid and even incentivizing vouchers with added amounts.

    2. Tim – maybe I’m missing something. If the flight did depart – and you didn’t show up – how can you get a refund? Don’t you have to cancel before the flight leaves – and if YOU cancel then the airline only needs to provide a voucher for future travel (possibly)!

  4. I think another reason they’re not cancelling them all at once is their call centres are already overwhelmed. Good luck calling Easyjet unless you can speak another foreign language.

    I (naively?) thought that adding capacity to call centres shouldn’t be too difficult given that it can be done from home and many tasks don’t require a huge amount of training.

  5. I’m sure you have a set of stock photos you lazily reuse for articles over and over again, but using a Qantas First Lounge departure board for an article that has absolutely nothing to do with the airline or its partners seems pretty ridiculous. I’m sure it attracts clicks, but perhaps start expanding on your (maybe non-existent) image pile. You could always pay for some image rights after all…… but then again clickbait seems to be the MO

    1. I see a board with flight departures and lights, so it seems relevant. Whether it’s from CDG, or an airport lounge is itrelevant.

      I took the photo. And wtf does any of this have to do with the topic, or are you just one of those people that comes here to tell me how much think I suck at my job?

    2. Gilbert is so lucky he is able to do a job he appears to love, is good at it and has developed a loyal following for and im sure a lot of people are envious of him as well but you too can make your career aspirations a reality! Impeeding this though will be all the sadness and anger you carry as evidenced by your need to put a complete stranger down in order to make yourself feel better, it is common with folks feeling similar. There is however help in the form of online counseling and they really can help you learn how to cope and turn your sadness into sucess! (From a couselor)

      1. The previous comment was for Richard (above)
        Gilbert, Keep on, keeping on, you are a great writer and have content with great information! Thx !

  6. I’m dealing with this for a flight on United! Booked UA435 from Kona to San Francisco leaving in mid-May. The flight is not bookable any more and if you look at UA435, it’s now a flight between EWR and Miami. I’ve asked multiple times for a refund and they keep saying the flight is schedule as normal but just not available for booking. It feels like a game of a chicken at this point!

  7. I got so mad at his blog post that I sent an email to him but never got a response, maybe you can take it up with him:
    “Dear IATA CEO
    I find your post very selfish and entitled. Let me explain why.
    First, you say many aviation jobs are at risk but have you ever thought of people who already lost their jobs and need even a small amount of money to get going? Maybe you never thought about those people, but the reality is that your industry is not alone. That is why I think your post is selfish. Your industry needs to give the money back because you didn’t provide the service, and the rule is clear on this. If someone lost a job and wants his/her ticket money back because this person is so desperate, do you think any airlines in the world would help them and return the non-refundable ticket in normal times? I don’t think so. Because they would say rule is rule, you bought a non-refundable ticket, so I can’t return the money because it is a rule you agreed. So how about abiding the rules when it comes to your own desperate time? Applying a favorable logic only to yourself but not to others makes you also very selfish and self-centered.

    Second, you say all you need is time and you want flexibility. But you can buy time, and you can be flexible in order to solve this liquidity issue. But instead of asking yourselves and being flexible, you ask others to do something for you because you are in a trouble? That makes you entitled. if you want time, buy it! Instead of giving a voucher worth of the money spent on a ticket, you add an interest rate and incentivize the passengers with a high interest (give them 20% more for example). But you are saying you want an interest-free loan from struggling passengers. This makes you entitled. Instead of writing a letter to passengers to be more understanding, write a letter to your member airlines to buy time! You said the time will solve the issue, so now you have the solution. And you can make passengers to choose between refund or extra voucher. Desperate passengers will get a refund and the others will let you keep the money. if you don’t have enough money, just increase the mark-up for the voucher. This is called market solution that you actively use in your ticketing system.

    You also said you want flexibility. Then you should also ask your airlines to be flexible. Your airline companies are famous for being so inflexible, so it is time to learn. When you offer a voucher, make them flexible. In the past, a voucher from airlines means that you cannot divide the voucher and use it in multiple transactions; it is “use-it-or-lose-it” type of vouchers. Also your airlines always offered vouchers with many restrictions so it is hard to use them, so many passengers are fed up with those vouchers, so no wonder why people do not like to get a voucher. Yes, so ask your airlines to be flexible, don’t ask random passengers who you screwed up so many times in the past. That is what I mean by entitled.

    Currently, many airlines offer vouchers that are worth the same amount of the ticket price, with a tight expiration date (who knows whether we can fly in the next 6 months or even a year because of our economic situations but your airlines are offering max one year voucher). Also, airlines say you can change your ticket without a fee but passengers still need to pay the fare difference (except Turkish airline) but why not be flexible and give passengers the flexibility to use the ticket on any day they want for the same class of service? You want the money and time, right? So you can do it easily if you try hard. and be flexible but you don’t seem to want to do that.

    Finally, many of your member airlines treated passengers badly, be it on air by dragging them out of their seat or refusing to give the compensation they deserve under EC261. You can check social media about airlines. You hardly find something nice. Maybe it is time to reflect on yourself as an industry, particularly when you need to ask for a favor. You create a hate and then want a sympathy from them? At least it doesn’t work for person to person relationship…Just my two cents.”

  8. Are phone booking fees refundable? The EU Commission notice only says full refunds, and I couldn’t find any mention of what it exactly includes.

    US DOT says ‘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.’ , but I couldn’t find anything about phone booking fees.

  9. Re: reuse if photo
    Whilst I enjoy it when you get excited by a new technology….
    I 360 degree view of this cabin anyone? I
    I come here for the words. Great aviation images are common. Great words are not.

  10. I have business class flights booked with points on Singapore airlines do you know what will happen if flights are cancelled. Do I get the points back or reschedule?

    1. If the flight is cancelled it would be your choice to reschedule or take the refund in points. If Singapore gives you a hard time about moving to a flight with points availability, then consider speaking to your local aviation governing body.

  11. Everyone really knows the score with flights currently. Maybe I’m missing something, but it’s simply common sense to hold out for the airline to cancel, there’s no advantage to making a first move.

    1. With due respect, it’s simply not. This is an hourly, daily issue, and frequent flyers rarely can get out of their own heads to conceptualize how 95% of travelers who don’t do this weekly think. Nothing wrong with either, but I’d say you’re wrong here.

  12. I have just found by accident that Delta canceled my flights. No emails but by checking my seats assignemtn in app they dissapeared. Later check on website i was as to acknowledge the change. But no mention what change! I dont want acknowledge smting i dont even know what. Phone was useles noone picked up (in Europe) went to chat to find out that the connecting flight was canceled (klm). But was offered refund. Id be idiot to take it on 800$ biz rt to US. Then after few question agent literally left the chat. Went on with twitter then i found out that even the Delta flight from Eu to Us is canceled. Iam not sure about Eu261 in this you cant find anything on delta.com.Did find on their British website. Flight canceled 2 weeks or more before departure not covered under Eu261. Interestigly both agents avoided the answer about this. I am happy to reschedule just found it a bit odd not inform me about cancelation/change by email and wanting to acknowledge something i do not know what.

  13. I have a flight from LHR booked with Air Canada to Calgary. Currently the flight is still scheduled but the A C policy seems to be voucher only if flight cancelled. No mention of a refund. One thing you didn’t cover in your article regarding accepting a voucher ( as far as I could see) is what happens if the price of that flight goes up, which the airline is at liberty to do. Vouchers seem to be for the value of the flight when you booked it. NOT a voucher to make that journey at another time, so potentially worthless if the flight has doubled in price when you come to redeem your voucher.

  14. Great article. Thank you for calling out flights to Greece and Aegean specifically for extremely shady behaviour. In recent flight cancellation emails to customers, Aegean are also implying that “go-light” fares are still non-refundable (even in this situation, where flights were cancelled by the airline). Pity to see this from Aegean, who in normal times operated at a very respectable level of customer service.

  15. I’ve been emailing Virgin Atlantic for a month trying to cancel an award ticket on ANA and they are employing passive aggressive approach to customer service.

    1. I’ve never known email to be an effective means of communication with airlines. Twitter, even Whatsapp and text work well for Virgin. I called to cancel three bookings this week and was through in about 20 mins, offered refund, took voucher etc.

  16. I just received confirmation that my Business Class flights have been cancelled by Qantas. They converted the flights into a voucher, but I also have the option to take a full refund. Valid until the end of 2021. I’ll wait for this COVID-19 nightmare to end before deciding what to do.
    Great post Gilbert.

  17. Very well-written article. And spot on !!
    I had a flight on AA in which one of the legs was outright cancelled (Tokyo Haneda to DFW). So I called AA, and they agreed that I could have a refund. But first they offered a voucher (I declined that), and then they offered a voucher worth 20% above the purchase value (this was an international business class ticket, so it was already high value). In the end, after a lengthy call, they agreed to refund the money, and yesterday it cleared my credit card (that I had used to purchase the ticket).
    So you can get refunds, but you have to (a) wait for them to cancel, and (b) stick with your plan to get a refund instead of a voucher.

  18. 4 months on and the situation hasn’t changed at all.
    We have a flight with TUI to Barbados in November. Our friends decided to join us so I tried to check seat availability for them through ‘my booking’ but just received an error message. They couldn’t book online as the flight no longer existed. They phoned to book and were told there was no flight until 3 days later. I phoned again and they denied that the flight was cancelled but the ‘change team’ would be in touch by email… but that could be up to just 3 days before the flight was due because they were dealing with bookings in date order. I know the flight is cancelled; they know the flight is cancelled. This isn’t even Covid related as the new schedule runs through to April 2021. It’s an absolute money grabbing shambles.

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