While we saw many videos of airline passengers joyously celebrating and tossing their face masks into trash bags when the mandate was lifted, not everyone was happy about it. In fact, some people began making preparations to cancel upcoming trips because of their fear of sitting on the same airplane as someone who is not masked up. But will those people be offered a refund for tickets that they had purchased in advance? The key word in the headline is “might.” Airline executives are telling the media that it’s possible that some people might receive refunds, but the number of caveats being added to that possibility makes it seem less than likely. And this brings us back to a fight over airline refund policies that predate that pandemic by quite a while.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said his airline will be flexible with people who have a weak immune system or are concerned about mask-optional flying for any other reason.
“We are working with those customers … to find another option, give them a credit, or if they just don’t ever want to fly again, (we are) actually willing to give them a refund,” Kirby told NBC.
A United spokesman said customers except those on the lowest-priced “basic economy” fares can delay their travel plans for any reason with no extra fee. He said passengers with special circumstances should call the airline’s customer-service number.
The bottom line is that not one of the major airlines is offering a conclusive policy that would apply to all travelers. Everything is being handled on a case-by-case basis. As the linked AP article points out, this will leave many customers “at the mercy of workers at airline customer-service centers.” In other words, if you place a call and are denied a refund, call back a short time later. You’ll probably be connected to a different customer service agent and they might be more amenable to your request.
The real question for the airlines to answer is whether or not the lack of a policy that is no longer required by the government is a sufficient reason to offer someone a refund. If the answer is yes, then anyone who requests a refund should get one. If not, then nobody should. But in their usual fashion, the airlines aren’t offering any sort of firm rules along those lines. People with more expensive, upgraded tickets will at least be offered the option of accepting credit toward their next flight if they cancel. And some may even get a refund, depending on some undefined set of circumstances. If you purchased a “basic economy” seat or went through one of those discount services, there will be no refund and no credit. They just keep your money.
Way back in 2020 we covered the fact that airlines were trying to refuse cash refunds on tickets canceled because of the pandemic. That often included cases where the airline had canceled the flight. Such policies should have been illegal, at least in my opinion. And yet the dodgy rules governing the advance sale of travel tickets allowed them to get away with it.
The fight over these policies was still dragging on in October of last year. And by that point, the no-refund policies for COVID had spread to hotel chains and resorts as well. If you tested positive and were forced to lock down, most hotels would tell you that it was just tough luck, but you weren’t getting your money back.
Both the airline and hotel industries really hate those discount companies that allow travelers a chance to get seats or rooms at a discount. As a result, they make sure to label all such reservations as non-refundable. That gives them the opportunity to sell a seat or a room twice for the same date. So if you choose to save a few bucks in that fashion, make the decision knowing that you might have to suck up the loss if you’re forced to cancel. There probably won’t be much you can do about it.