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By Brad Tuttle
July 14, 2020
Getty Images

What are airlines doing to cope with the coronavirus pandemic lately? Among other measures, U.S. airlines have been expanding policies that waive change fees for passengers who don’t want to travel in 2020, and they’ve stepped up safety procedures to include face mask requirements and increased social distancing throughout the entire flight process.

Yet even as the airlines are being proactive to address traveler concerns, and even though policies have changed multiple times in response to the latest state of lockdowns and CDC guidelines, one thing has been frustratingly consistent: The airlines have been extremely reluctant to simply give people their money back, even though Americans have been strongly cautioned against inessential travel for months.

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Airline Refunds and Coronavirus

In the U.S., airlines are required to give refunds if a flight has been cancelled or the schedule was changed significantly (usually, by more than four hours). Huge numbers of flights have been cancelled in 2020. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a record low of 194,390 domestic flights took place in April, compared to around 700,000 for a normal month. Every passenger on a cancelled flight is entitled to a refund. But the airlines aren’t always upfront about this, and they don’t have to give refunds unless the customer requests one. What airlines typically do when a flight’s been cancelled is nudge passengers into changing their tickets to a new flight, or to accept a travel voucher that can be used down the line. Basically, the strategy is: anything to avoid giving customers their money back.

What’s more, when it’s the passenger who decides to cancel flight plans — which has obviously happened in abundance in 2020 — the airline is under no obligation to give a refund. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the airlines have not been issuing refunds in these circumstances.

Customers have been furious about the reluctance of airlines to give refunds — the Department of Transportation has fielded over 25,000 complaints on the topic recently — and some lawmakers have tried to force the issue. The “Cash Refunds for Coronavirus Cancellations Act of 2020,” sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA), would require airlines and ticket agents to give full refunds to passengers who want to cancel their plans, as well as to passengers who have already cancelled and accepted airline travel vouchers.

The way things stand in Congress, it looks like this bill will never become law. So, for now, airline passengers must deal with the existing change fee waiver and cancellation policies — which are more flexible and reasonable in 2020 compared to normal years, but which still fall short of what passengers and travel advocates like Flyers Rights feel is appropriate. Here are the current policies for the big U.S. airlines:

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines tickets purchased between February 27 and July 31, 2020, can be changed or cancelled with no fee, but passengers shouldn’t expect refunds. Changes and cancellations must be made before the flight date on your ticket, and your new travel plans must take place within one year of your original departure date. Refunds are not allowed on nonrefundable tickets; if you cancel reservations, you’ll receive the value of the unused flights in your Alaska Airlines account or in the form of a credit valid for future travel.

American Airlines

American has extended its policy waiving change fees, and now allows passengers to change tickets for free on all departures through September 30. Only one free ticket change is allowed, and the new flights must be completed no later than December 31, 2020.

Separately, American Airlines customers can change reservations once for free on tickets purchased now through July 31, for departures October 1 or later. The new travel plans must be completed within one year of your original departure dates. Refunds are not allowed, though you can cancel tickets and receive a credit that can be used on future flights, and credits generally expire one year after the purchase date.

Delta Air Lines

Delta has several different change fee waiver policies, and the specific rules that apply to you are based on when you purchased the ticket, where you’re flying (international or domestic), and your original travel dates. And yes, all the different permutations of rules and waivers are very confusing.

If you have a ticket purchased by April 17 and scheduled for travel by September 30 within the U.S., you can change the dates (but not the destination) with no penalty and no fare difference — so long as the new flight still takes place by September 30. What if you want to change the destination of your travels? If you change the itinerary on a domestic Delta flight purchased by April 17 and departing by September 30, you can cancel the trip with no penalty and get a credit good for a future flight anytime by September 30, 2022. However, in this situation you will have to pay the fare difference — calculated based on the value of the new ticket minus the value of your original ticket.

In yet another situation that may apply to you, Delta says that normal change fees are being waived on all tickets (domestic and international) purchased between March 1 and July 31. In this case, the new flight must take place within one year of the purchase date. Like other airlines, Delta is not giving refunds unless the airline itself cancels the flight.

Frontier Airlines

Frontier has a half-dozen different change fee policies, and it can be difficult sorting through them all to see which apply to you. The overarching pandemic-inspired rule is that you can change or cancel your tickets in 2020 with no fees — but only if you make the changes at least 60 days before departure, and only if you confirm a new itinerary within 90 days of cancelling. For changes made 14 to 59 days before departure, the change fee is $79, while changes made within two weeks of departure incur a $119 fee.

In some cases, however, more generous change policies apply. Frontier is allowing no-fee changes for tickets purchased between July 2 and July 31, so long as the changes are made at least one week prior to departure. Yet another rule is giving each passenger one free ticket change on flights departing now through July 31 to or from the following states: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Texas. In all cases, the new flights must be completed by September 12, 2021.

JetBlue

JetBlue’s coronavirus ticket change policy is pretty straightforward: “We’re waiving change/cancel fees for customers with existing bookings made through July 31. If you choose to rebook, you can do so on any flight through the end of our schedule. Fare difference may apply.”

Southwest Airlines

Southwest always allows free flight changes. Because of the coronavirus, Southwest’s has tweaked its change policy to make it even more generous. Any customer whose Southwest travel credits are set to expire by September 7, 2020, are being extended, and will now expire September 7, 2022. Likewise, anyone purchasing a Southwest Airlines ticket between March 1 and September 7, 2020, will be able to change or cancel the flight in exchange for Southwest travel funds valid for use by September 7, 2022.

Spirit Airlines

Spirit is currently waiving change fees for all tickets purchased by July 31. You can change your ticket for free, or cancel and receive a full credit good for a future flight with Spirit. The airline does not specify when flight credits expire.

United Airlines

United passengers can change existing flights now through July 31 and incur no fees, provided their rescheduled flights take place by the end of 2020. Additionally, new bookings made now through July 31 can also be changed with no fees, and the new tickets or flight credits must generally be used within 12 months of the original purchase date.

Anyone who was issued a United flight credit between May 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020, has some extra time: These credits are valid for 24 months after the original purchase date.

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