Ins and outs of air travel refunds during COVID-19

Nearly all carriers are offering vouchers rather than cash


This week’s question comes from Sylvia who asks: My family and I had some questions about refunds regarding our airline travel due to COVID-19 over the holidays. Every year my family travels to the East Coast from the West Coast to see my parents. Because the price tends to increase as it gets closer to the holidays, we bought tickets over a year in advance. We also do the same thing with summer vacation for the kids. Our June vacation with my children was reasonably easy to cancel. Now they tell me I can’t get my money back now, but I can re-book up to a year from the ticket without service charges. This seems unfair since COVID-19 is so unpredictable. Instead of them holding our money back with conditions and hoping we can travel next year, do you know any way to force them to return my money?

Dear Sylvia: COVID-19 has changed the entire way the world and our community interact. At the beginning of the pandemic, many airlines were issuing full refunds because little was known about the virus or how someone could safely fly during these times. There is a concept in the law called force majeure when dealing with contracts. Essentially, force majeure means that one person cannot fulfill their obligations under the agreement because of unforeseeable circumstances. When the pandemic hit, many airlines realized that they had to rework how they did business, and those that traveled with the airlines would not be able to do so until they were able to understand their own health needs and status of infection. The concept of force majeure was used, often without knowing its name, by both the airlines and the travelers to cancel or reschedule thousands of flights.

Now that we know a little more about COVID-19, some people have decided that with the changes the airlines are making, they would like to travel. This change in attitudes of some travelers, as well as changes made by the airlines, has made seeking a refund increasingly difficult. Because different policies exist for various airlines, and because the wait times to talk to a representative are relatively high, many have contacted the Department of Transportation to resolve their ticket refund status.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Transportation obligated airlines to immediately provide a prompt refund to travelers with flights to, within or from the United States if their flights were delayed or rerouted significantly to the virus. However, even at the beginning of the pandemic, many airlines were not issuing refunds and instead they were trying to rectify flight cancellations by rerouting passengers, issuing travel vouchers or changing flight dates. According to U.S. Department of Transportation webpage, no further directives have been issued regarding cancellations due to COVID-19.

The first place for you to start is the airline with which you booked your flight. Begin by researching and understanding their change and cancellation policy. Nearly every airline has made some modifications to their change and cancellation policy. Most airlines are not charging fees for cancellation or changing flights, and also refunding and extending miles if your flight was booked with miles.

However, nearly all airlines are not providing cash refunds and instead offering vouchers that must be used in a certain amount of time from the date of cancellation. This is true even for the airlines that didn’t charge fees and allowed easy cancellations and refunds before the pandemic. Some airlines are increasing the amount of the voucher and/or giving more miles or points for travel to those affected by changed flights; this is the airlines’ form of recognizing the difficulty of the ongoing situation.

Sadly, you cannot sue in small claims to get your cash back, like you can in the case of a simple auto accident. Depending on your purchase’s terms and conditions, where the ticket was purchased and the ever-changing COVID-19 landscape, different laws apply. Depending on how you paid, your credit card company may (or may not) be willing to refund you the sum you lost, in accordance with its policy regarding the COVID crisis. I suggest researching your airline’s cancellation policy, then contacting your credit card company if you purchased your ticket with your card (rather than on points or miles). It’s possible that your credit card company will be more flexible than the airline in providing some refund.

If your situation involves a family member that has tested positive for the virus, and this affects your future travel – for example, a visit with an elderly relative that might not be possible to take a later date — I would strongly urge you to gather whatever documents you have to support this fact and ask to speak to a manager at the airline in question. The carrier may view the situation differently than that of other travelers who have had to, or chosen to, cancel plans to see loved ones.

Christopher B. Dolan is the owner of the Dolan Law Firm, PC. Aimee Kirby is the managing attorney of the torts practice group and based in the Los Angeles office. Email questions and topics for future articles to: We serve clients across the San Francisco Bay Area and California from our offices in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Our work is no recovery, no free or also referred to as contingency-based. That means we collect no fee unless we obtain money for your damages and injuries.

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