Canceled flights: DOT proposes airline refund rule

The Department of Transportation proposed new regulations that would force airlines to issue more refunds to passengers for flight disruptions.

The Department of Transportation proposed new regulations that would force airlines to issue more refunds to passengers for flight disruptions.


After a summer plagued by airline delays and cancellations, travelers might get expanded access to plane ticket refunds soon.

The United States Department of Transportation announced a new set of proposed rules that would broaden the reasons airlines are required to issue refunds, even for nonrefundable tickets, according to an Aug. 3 news release. The proposal includes provisions for flights that are delayed, canceled and impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Easier access to cash refunds

While the department has required refunds when airlines cancel or “significantly change their flights,” the new proposal seeks to define exact situations when refunds are due, the release says.

Under the new rules, “significant” changes that would require a cash refund from airlines include:

  • Delays of three hours or longer for domestic flights or six hours or longer for international flights
  • Changes in a flight’s departure or arrival airport
  • Increasing an itinerary’s number of connections
  • Changes to the aircraft that create a downgrade in travel experience or amenities

Cancellations would include flights that were published in the airline’s reservation system at the time a passenger booked but were not carried out by the airline and would also qualify for cash refunds.

Non-refundable tickets are eligible for the proposed refunds.

Pandemic precautions

The proposal also includes regulations for pandemic-related disruptions to air travel.

If a passenger is unable to fly for reasons such as travel bans, closed borders or if they are sick, airlines and ticket agents will be required to issue flight credits or vouchers that are valid indefinitely.

Airlines and agents that receive pandemic-related government assistance would be required to issue cash refunds instead of vouchers in these instances.

This provision is “just incredible—would have saved so many people so much angst over the past 2.5 years,” Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, he said in a tweet.

Protecting travelers’ rights

Air travel has faced significant disruptions this summer as delay and cancellation rates have soared.

In June, an average of 23% of flights departing from US airports were delayed, up 8% from pre-pandemic delays in June 2019, according to data from Hopper. By the end of July, delay rates had risen to 25% of all departures, affecting thousands of US flights each day.

And while cancellation rates have dropped from their peak of over 4%, they are still high, coming in around 2% of departing flights daily at the end of July, Hopper said.

The department said it has been receiving complaints from travelers with non-refundable tickets since early 2020. The new proposal is a way to ameliorate some of the hassle that has come with flying.

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

Moira Ritter covers real-time news for McClatchy. She is a graduate of Georgetown University where she studied government, journalism and German. Previously, she reported for CNN Business.


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