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Airlines owe you a refund if you cancel a flight. Why does United flinch during the coronavirus crisis?

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United Airlines text appeared on Joe Bushee’s iPhone just before dinner on Sunday.

“Your flight UA366 from Hartford to Denver has been canceled due to the unprecedented circumstances currently affecting travel,” it said.

The 27-year-old Bushee, a television producer, had already decided not to travel with his college friends due to coronavirus concerns, but had not called United to cancel because the airline’s website urged travelers up to 72 hours waiting before their flight. Bushee should not leave until Thursday.

When he called United on Monday, he asked about his reimbursement options. He wanted his $ 364 back and thought it was a no-brainer since United, not him, canceled the flight. He had received an immediate refund for a Denver concert that was canceled.

Bushee said the agent had told him that United was not “granting any refunds” at that time and offered another flight to Denver or travel credit until December. Bushee declined.

He found out about the U.S. Department of Transportation regulations that require refunds for non-refundable tickets if an airline cancels your flight, and has unsuccessfully contacted Twitter for help from United.

He called United back and a second agent said he was due for a refund, but when he tried to process it, the computer only displayed travel credit as an option. The agent informed Bushee that he had not seen an official United policy on non-refunds, but suspected the airline had “lost a lot of sales.”

Bushee asked to speak to a manager and expressed his case. He was finally promised a refund.

The most frustrating part of the ordeal, he said, “Nobody seemed to know why I couldn’t get the refund. ”

No major U.S. airline externally advertises the availability of cash refunds for passengers whose flights are canceled due to the industry’s precarious finances. As a rule, rebookings or travel vouchers are the first options offered online and by telephone. (Travelers who cancel upcoming flights themselves can rebook or receive travel credit, with the change fee generally not applicable depending on the travel date.)

But American, Delta, and Southwest offer fine print refunds for domestic and international flights that airlines cancel. This is their standard practice.

United plays hardball with travelers who should be eligible for a refund – something that didn’t do during the Boeing 737 Max crisis, grounded the planes, and forced thousands of flight cancellations last year.

The airline’s coronavirus refund policy for travelers whose flights are canceled by the airline are the stingiest of the four major U.S. airlines and appear to circumvent the DOT guidelines. A spokesman for the agency said the government’s rules have not changed: a passenger is entitled to a refund if an airline cancels a flight and the passenger does not accept an alternative flight with that airline.

United’s policies are complicated and difficult to find on the airline’s website or receive clear answers from the airline. His cancellation assistant offered no help on this front.

Conclusion for travelers: United does not offer an immediate refund for canceled international flights and has created a major hurdle for canceled flights within the United States. The changes came when United and other airlines cut unprecedented numbers of flights as government demand for travel fell, business travel restrictions, and travel anxiety.

Domestic flights: United will not offer a refund on canceled flights within the United States unless the new flight, whose computer system automatically causes you to delay your departure or arrival by more than six hours. If this is not the case and you do not want to travel, you will receive travel credit for the value of the ticket. (United booked Bushee three hours later for a flight that required a connection. His original Flight was non-stop.) The DOT policy does not mention timeframes for determining a refund if a flight is canceled. There is a separate refund policy for significant delays caused by a change in the schedule.

The only exception to United’s domestic refund policy: flight cancellations to destinations that the airline no longer serves due to coronavirus outages. These travelers can get their money back. So far, this list only includes Mammoth Lakes, California, United spokeswoman Leslie Scott said.

International flights: United effectively delays passenger refunds by up to a year. Travelers whose flights are canceled – and these are the majority of international travelers because the international flight service is almost discontinued – will receive a voucher for the value of their ticket. If you do not use it within a year of the ticket purchase date, you will receive a voucher and can get your money back.

“They appear to be trying not to be as accommodating as other airlines, and that is unacceptable,” said William J. McGee, aviation consultant for consumer reports.

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The DOT issued a statement to the US TODAY that the division has been informed of complaints regarding airline reimbursement practices and is reviewing the issue.

Scott said United communicated with DOT about its policies, “and they have raised no objection.”

She also said that other major global airlines, including Air France / KLM and Lufthansa, have introduced a similar policy of only offering international flight credits, some without the option of a later refund.

“We’ve introduced brand new policies over the past few weeks to give our customers more flexibility in these extraordinary times. Our guidelines are transparent and clearly formulated for our customers. They set out steps to be taken if their plans change, ”said Scott, mentioning the airline’s coronavirus travel waiver. “We are proud of the role that our company – and our people – play in serving our customers during the most troubling global crisis business airline business has ever faced.”

A dream trip abroad postponed, a refund delayed significantly

Matt Williams, 43, a university professor in the UK, calls what United is doing during the coronavirus crisis “misconduct”.

Williams and his husband spent more than $ 4,800 last August on two non-refundable business class tickets to San Francisco for a two-week dream trip along the California coast.

You should leave on April 7th. Williams said he called the business class hotline last week to check the status of his flight. It was still planned.

Williams did not want to cancel because he suspected that a refund would be due if United’s flight was canceled. Williams said the customer service representative insisted on canceling the flight, mentioned the travel restrictions for Europe announced in mid-March, and was receiving a credit.

“I was pretty much done with it,” he said. “I really regret calling her.”

United canceled the long-haul flight a few days later.

The loan Williams received expires in November, but he said he won’t be able to use it until then and wants his money back now. He said he had received instant refunds from other airlines, including Irish discount airline Ryan Air, which is not exactly known for its first-class customer service.

“They sent me an email saying, ‘Here’s your money.’ ”

Williams said he asked United’s executives for help and went back with a United representative. The agent cited European Union aviation laws, which are generally more liberal than US consumer protection, stating that passengers are not entitled to compensation if this is due to “exceptional circumstances that could not be avoided”.

“Mr. Williams,” the email said, “COVID-19 is an exceptional circumstance.”

United (or another airline) canceled my flight and is not offering my money back. What can I do?

1. Keep pressing on your case with airline representatives by phone (preferably late into the night to reduce call volume) or on social media, citing DOT guidelines. Be polite and respectful, not angry and rude. Customer service workers were overwhelmed by the crisis.

2nd Document everything. Provide dates, times, flight numbers, and reservation numbers, McGee said. And always write down the names, titles, times and dates of all personal conversations and telephone calls. The more information, the stronger the case, he said.

3) Submit a complaint with the airline and copy the DOT and the EU if necessary.

4.) Contact your credit card company for help.

This article originally appeared in the U.S. TODAY: United Airlines blew up refund policies during the coronavirus crisis

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