Airlines are trying to steer out of trouble following a computer outage that resulted in thousands of flights being delayed around the country this week.
Nearly 11,000 flights were delayed and another 1,300 were canceled on Jan. 11, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking company. While those numbers were down on Jan. 12, travel schedules for thousands of people were thrown into chaos, leading many to seek alternate plans and wonder if they are eligible for refunds.
How do you know if you can get a refund? Well, the answer is not so simple. Here’s the information you need to know.
“There are no federal laws requiring airlines to provide passengers with money or other compensation when their flights are delayed,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's website.
“Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers. If your flight is experiencing a long delay, ask airline staff if they will pay for meals or a hotel room. While some airlines offer these amenities to passengers, others do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers.”
There are delays for flights, and then there is what the DOT calls a “significant delay.” The agency does not have a specific definition for that, leading to a lack of clarity about whether passengers can get a refund.
“It depends,” the DOT website says. “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.).
“Whether you are entitled to a refund depends on a lot of factors — such as the length of the delay, the length of the flight, and your particular circumstances. DOT determines whether you are entitled to a refund on a case by case basis,” the agency adds.
Matters are a little clearer for canceled flights. Most airlines will book customers free of charge on the next flight to their destination, even if it’s on another airline. Should your flight be canceled and you elect to cancel the trip altogether, you can obtain a refund, even if the tickets are nonrefundable. Other costs, such as baggage fees and seat assignments, should also be refunded.
Airlines also do not have to provide hotel rooms, taxi fare, food vouchers or any other nonticket costs if a flight is canceled.
“Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for passengers whose flights have been cancelled,” the DOT says. “If your flight is cancelled, ask the airline staff if they will pay for meals or a hotel room. While some airlines offer these amenities to passengers, others do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers.”
Further, airlines are not obligated to reimburse costs affected by a canceled flight, such as a cruise, honeymoon, wedding, tickets to a concert/event or lost wages.
There are other scenarios in which customers can receive a refund, according to the DOT.
Passengers are eligible for a refund if they are forced to move to seats that cost less than what they paid for a ticket.
“A consumer is entitled to a refund if the consumer was involuntarily moved to a lower class of service,” the DOT writes. “For example, if the consumer purchased a first-class ticket and was downgraded to economy class due to an aircraft swap, the consumer is owed the difference in fares.”
Passengers can also receive a refund if they paid for optional services, such as baggage fees, seat upgrades or in-flight Wi-Fi, but were not able to use them due to a flight cancelation, delay, schedule change or if they were bumped off the flight. If those amenities failed to work during the flight, you can also contact the airline for a refund.
There are some situations when consumers cannot get a refund, according to the DOT.
“Consumers who purchase nonrefundable tickets are not entitled to a refund unless the airline makes a promise to provide a refund or the airline cancels a flight or makes a significant schedule change,” the agency writes.
Passengers also cannot get their money back if they bought nonrefundable tickets, but can’t make the flight for personal reasons, such as falling ill or arriving late to the airport. The same is true for people who are not pleased with the experience on their flight.
If you’re in doubt about whether you qualify for a refund, the DOT cautions people to remember some matters remain out of the airlines’ control.
“When planning a trip, passengers should keep in mind that airlines do not guarantee their schedules,” the agency writes.
“While airlines want to get passengers to their destinations on time, there are many things that can — and sometimes do — make it difficult for flights to arrive on time. Some problems, like bad weather, air traffic delays, and mechanical issues, are hard to predict and often beyond the airlines’ control.”