Update: after strong new guidance from the US DOT today, JetBlue, United and others are being held accountable. Even those who have accepted vouchers must be informed of their right to refund.

Perhaps it’s a societal question much larger than the purview of a travel blog, but if laws aren’t laws, or aren’t enforced – what is the point of government, or society at all? Should we all then just fend for ourselves, no longer throwing any caution to things regarded as prohibited? It certainly sounds like a slippery slope, and United and JetBlue have put on their swimming outfits and run head first down the hill.

US Trip Delay And Cancellation Laws

In case your entire life doesn’t revolve around studying airlines passenger laws, rules or regulations, the United States is already one of the more lenient countries when it comes to passenger rights, or rather a lack thereof.

Unlike Europe, where airlines can be on the hook for actual cash fines paid to passenger in addition to airfare, lodging and other considerations, there are very few things airlines must do for you when US travel goes wrong. One of the few goodies is a refund if a flight is cancelled and you no longer wish to travel.

United and JetBlue are laughing in the face of this policy, modifying their contracts of carriage to state that they’re effectively allowed to put you through up to 24 hours and 1 minute of torture before a refund is due. This is directly contradictory to US law.

Here’s JetBlue’s new schedule change/cancellation policy

If the schedule change is 24 hours and 1 minute or longer, then you may refund to original form of payment.

This is in contrast to their previous, law abiding policy where changes of more than 2 hours were eligible for a full refund. That’s a 22 hour shift in unfriendliness, and absolutely goes directly against the law. If a flight is cancelled by any length of time you should be legally due a full refund. If a flight is altered, two hours seemed like a fair threshold for a refund. No longer..

And then there’s United, with their new schedule change/cancellation policy.

The airline will only refund passengers whose flights are changed or altered by 6 hours or more. This in itself is against the rules, but United goes further. The airline automatically issues a voucher, and the voucher only becomes a refund after one year. United is effectively giving itself a 12 month loan with your money.

US DOT Law For Flight Cancellations And Changes

What’s tricky here is that airlines are trying to tinker with schedules, rather than simply cancel a flight. The rules for cancellations in the United States couldn’t be more clear, but there’s no set amount of time for delays where the DOT mandates a refund.

If a flight is cancelled, here’s US DOT policy…

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.

In other words, airlines are trying to mess with flight times without technically cancelling the flight, rather than cancel and move passengers onto another flight. By doing this, in certain cases, they’re able to argue that it’s just a delay as part of a schedule change, not a cancellation. There’s good reason for doing so.

The US DOT is so toothless, they don’t even set a number for airlines or passengers, as to what counts as requiring a refund. Is a significant delay 2 hours, or 25? Your guess is as good as anyone’s, and that’s why refunds become a grey area, rather than a guarantee.

Here’s the US DOT position on schedule changes…

Schedule Change/Significant Delay – A passenger is entitled to a refund if the airline made a significant schedule change and/or significantly delays a flight and the passenger chooses not to travel.

In some situations, you may be entitled to a refund, including a refund for all optional fees associated with the purchase of your ticket (such as baggage fees, seat upgrades, etc.).

DOT has not specifically defined “significant delay.” Whether you are entitled to a refund depends on many factors – including the length of the delay, the length of the flight, and your particular circumstances. DOT determines whether you are entitled to a refund following a significant delay on a case-by-case basis.

Basically, you’ll need to hope your flight is cancelled, and not schedule changed if you’d like any chance of citing legal grounds for a refund. Airlines like JetBlue and United are leading the way in running circles around the law and the US Department Of Transportation is doing nothing about it.

Airlines need money no doubt, but so do many of the people who have booked tickets they can no longer use. The world is hurting, not just airlines.

If the US Department of Transportation were to become more invertebrate and suspend refund rules in favor of airlines, that would be one thing, but in the present, the airlines are just enjoying the knowledge that the US DOT won’t act – because it never does.

So what can you do?

Frustration is mounting, pitchforks are toward the sky and people want actionable information. If an airline is clearly breaking the law and denying a refund, after multiple attempts, a chargeback with your credit card is a tough final solution, but one that will likely recover the funds.

If you really want to make a difference, or at least make it harder for the US DOT to continue to be so spineless, you can file a complaint with the Department Of Transportation, stating your circumstance and exactly how the airline broke the laws, in your eyes.

This is a very underused tactic to hold travel businesses accountable, and one you absolutely should add to your repertoire. Best of luck getting a favorable, or at least equitable result!

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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6 Comments

  1. Swiss promised a refund for a flight I cancelled within 24 hours of booking. That was back in February. Up to now there has been no sign of a refund despite assurances that the relevant department is processing it. I filed a chargeback and a DOT complaint.

  2. What about if the flight is from LAX to Toronto next month and Canada isn’t admitting Americans for non-essential travel.

    Can I get a refund from Air Canada because I can’t get into Canada?

  3. In theory EU laws are much stricter than the US but you are seeing many more European airlines doing all they can to not refund customers (even refusing in many cases) than in the US! You highlighted the 2 major US offenders (although United now expressed they will comply) but try getting a refund from practically any EU airline and you will be disappointed. No need to look “across the pond” for this issue!

    BTW to your original question – laws are fine until you can’t comply or they can’t be enforced. It is fine to demand refunds and/or other compensation but if the airlines don’t have the money (or free cash flow) they can’t pay you! That is where many are and I suspect many governments will grant them a waiver on any penalty due to the unique circumstances

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