Frontier, TAP Portugal, and four other airlines will pay back over $622 million in passenger refunds that are still owed consumers over flights that airlines cancelled or significantly changed, many of them over the pandemic. It's not surprising to us that TAP Air Portugal and Frontier were among the penalized airlines; they were #3 and #5 respectively of the Worst Major Airlines for Refunds during the pandemic; see our Best and Worst Airlines for Refunds from Cancelled Flights During the Pandemic.
“It shouldn't take enforcement action (from the U.S. Department of Transportation) to get airlines to pay the funds that they're required to pay,” stated Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Some passengers have been waiting many months or even years for their refunds. The DOT has been taking a pro-consumer stance (see DOT Proposes Stronger Airline Refund Rules).
In addition to the refunds, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has imposed a total of $7.25 million in penalties for consumers' protracted wait for refunds. The harshest civil penalty, $2.2 million, was levied on Frontier, which retroactively changed its refund policy. Prior to the pandemic, it defined an airline-initiated flight change of three hours or more as a “significant schedule change” that entitled a passenger to a full refund of the flight, but for eight months during 2020, Frontier only offered travel vouchers to passengers who were offered an alternative flight on the same calendar day but didn't accept the change. This policy was applied even to passengers who purchased tickets under the old policy.
Here are the refunds and penalties imposed so far:
- Frontier: $222 million in refunds and $2.2 million penalty
- Air India: $121.5 million in refunds and a $1.4 million penalty
- TAP Portugal: $126.5 million in refunds and a $1.1. million penalty
- Aeromexico: $13.6 million in refunds and a $900,000 penalty
- El Al: $61.9 million in refunds and $900,000 penalty
- Avianca: $76.8 million in refunds and a $750,000 penalty
“Not Our Fault”
As is to be expected, airlines pointed fingers at everyone except themselves when it came to refund delays, or in Frontier's case, even claimed the opposite of wrongdoing:
- Frontier “We're generous”: Frontier, rather than issuing a mea culpa, claimed that its issuance of $92 million in refunds and redeemed credits and vouchers to passengers who voluntarily canceled non-refundable tickets during COVID and were not entitled to refunds “demonstrate Frontier’s commitment to treating our customers with fairness and flexibility.”
- Air India “We're too generous too!”: Air India also blamed delays on the “flood of refund requests from March 2020 through September 2021” because of the airline's “liberal refund-on-demand policy.”
- El Al “It's COVID's Fault”: The Israeli airline claimed that it “prioritized refunds for U.S. passengers” but couldn't meet DOT's timeframe for refunds due to the pressure the “COVID-19 public health emergency had on its personnel and its finances.”
- Aeromexico “It was us or passengers. We chose us”: Aeromexico stated that the airline “faced the possibility that it would need to cease operations, so it made the difficult decision to limit how passengers holding nonrefundable tickets could recover the value of those tickets.”
- TAP Air Portugal “Overwhelmed”: TAP noted that it received “an avalanche of refund requests and its call center was quickly overwhelmed.”
We hope that our readers aren't still waiting for refunds from these airlines (we recommend filing a chargeback if an airline owes you a refund and you've already pursued the refund directly with the airline, without success). And in the future, we recommend avoiding these airlines if possible, at least for paid flights. For domestic U.S. travel, Alaska Airlines has the best schedule change refund policy; see Best and Worst U.S. Airline Refund Policies for Schedule Changes.
Subscribe to TravelSort on YouTube for travel inspiration.
Become a TravelSort Client and Book 5-Star Hotels with Virtuoso or Four Seasons Preferred Partner Benefits