Airlines face newly proposed refund rules for flight delays and schedule changes

The U.S. Department of Transportation is proposing to require airlines to offer passengers a refund if their flight schedule changes significantly or the airline makes major changes to their itinerary.

The proposed rule, announced on Wednesday, would require airlines to issue refunds if their departure or arrival time changes by three hours or more on a domestic flight, or at least six hours on 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 deterioration” in the travel experience by switching to a different aircraft type.

The rule would even apply to travelers buying non-refundable tickets, which typically cost less and are preferred by many leisure travelers.

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

Airlines prefer to issue travel vouchers instead of refunds.

The department proposes to require airlines and ticket offices to issue vouchers that do not expire if passengers are not supposed 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. Her trade group Airlines for America did not immediately comment.

Currently, airlines are required to offer refunds to passengers whose flights are canceled or significantly modified, but cancellation or significant modification has never been defined. Because of this, airlines have challenged the Department of Transportation’s power to force them to pay refunds.

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

Consumer complaints filed with the department increased nearly sevenfold in 2020 from a year earlier, and 87 percent involved refunds.

The department will accept public comments on the proposal for 90 days. A group advising the ministry, which includes consumer advocates, scheduled an online meeting on August 22 to discuss the rule.

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