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By Brad Tuttle
Updated: April 3, 2020 3:07 PM ET | Originally published: March 19, 2020
The departures board showing cancelled flights at the Istanbul IST Airport in Turkey, due to the outbreak of Coronavirus Covid-19, on March 18, 2020.
NurPhoto—NurPhoto via Getty Images

The coronavirus crisis is putting spring and summer travel plans on hold for tens of millions of Americans. If you’ve already purchased nonrefundable airline tickets, you’ll likely be able to change your flight for free or cancel it in exchange for a credit to use on a later trip. The bad news is that these tickets are still nonrefundable, so you shouldn’t expect to get your money back.

Still, even if you are certain you need to cancel or change your airline tickets, you might want to hold off on making flight changes for the time being. This is especially true for people whose trips are scheduled for departure weeks or months from now, and for those with airline tickets heading outside the U.S.

Why? For one thing, customer service lines are swamped, making it very difficult to change or cancel your tickets. Some airlines are specifically asking people with later departures to make changes online, or to wait for things to slow down. Delta, for one, says it’s “currently focused on helping customers whose travel is scheduled within the next 72 hours.”

Here’s another factor to consider: If you change or cancel your ticket now, you could miss out on the opportunity to get a refund if the airline itself decides to cancel your flight.

According to longstanding Department of Transportation regulations, “a passenger is entitled to a refund if the airline cancelled a flight, regardless of the reason, and the passenger chooses not to be rebooked on a new flight on that airline.” Take note that this rule only applies when the airline makes the decision to cancel the flight; airlines are under no obligation to pay refunds if a flight is cancelled for reasons outside their control, such as a blizzard or hurricane.

Due to a combination of travel restrictions and drastically decreased demand, airlines are planning huge cuts in service — especially for long-haul international flights.

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American Airlines says it is reducing international capacity by 75% from now through May 6. American will continue operating daily flights from Dallas and Miami to London, but most other international routes — including flights from the U.S. to most other European destinations, Australia, New Zealand, and most of South America and Asia — are being temporarily suspended. Flights within the U.S. will be decreased too, the airline said, with an expected 20% year-over-year drop in April and a 30% decline in May.

Meanwhile, United Airlines says that it will decrease all flights by at least 60% in April, and international flights by 90%. Among other changes, United announced it will suspend all flights to Canada starting April 1. Delta is slashing routes too, with a particularly sharp reduction in international flights. And virtually every other airline will be cancelling many flights in the days and weeks to come. Maybe even longer. In one of the more drastic schedule changes, Hawaiian Airlines announced it is suspending nearly all long-haul flights (including routes to the mainland) at least through the end of March.

Usually, when an airline cancels a flight, it’s standard practice for the carrier to underplay that customers with tickets on that flight are entitled to refunds. Instead, airlines tend to highlight how customers can change tickets right away with no fees, or receive a credit. After all, the airline would much rather keep your money than issue a refund.

United Airlines in particular has been very reluctant lately to offer refunds to customers it cancels flights, according to reports. According to the Wall Street Journal, United was making some customers wait for up to a year before issuing refunds on cancelled flights, and Delta has reportedly been trying to assess $150 or $200 cancellation penalties when passengers ask for refunds.

But according to federal regulations, the airline has to give you your money back in full, when requested, if it cancels a flight and offers no reasonable alternative departure. On April 3, the Department of Transportation said it has been receiving “an increasing number of complaints” about the subject, and it issued a statement explaining that “U.S. and foreign airlines remain obligated to provide a prompt refund to passengers for flights to, within, or from the United States when the carrier cancels the passenger’s scheduled flight or makes a significant schedule change and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative.”

Here’s what else to keep in mind if you’re hoping to get a refund on your airline tickets.

Don’t Wait Around Forever

While each airline’s coronavirus cancellation policy is different, most U.S. airlines are allowing passengers to change their tickets once with no fees, for flights that are either scheduled for departure in March or April, or that were purchased anytime in March with a later departure. Also, in order to change or cancel your flight for free, you generally must act BEFORE your originally scheduled departure date.

If you wait too long in the hopes that the airline will cancel the flight and entitle you to a refund, you could lose the option to book a new flight with no fees, and possibly forsake the value of your original ticket entirely. So as it gets close to your departure date, be sure to change or cancel your flight — which can usually be done for free at your airline’s website.

Bear in mind that international flights are much more likely to be cancelled than domestic routes. So it might be wise to change your ticket sooner rather than later if your current flight is within the U.S. and you’re comfortable choosing a new departure date (?). What’s more, flight prices are super cheap right now, and that works in your advantage when booking a new ticket. Even though the airlines allow free flight changes, you will have to pay the price difference between the original ticket purchase and the new flight.

Not All Flight Cancellations Are Entitled to Refunds

The Department of Transportation says that an airline has to pay refunds if it cancels a flight or makes a “significant schedule change and/or significantly delays” the flight. The DOT doesn’t define what a “significant delay” means, however, and an airline can avoid having to pay refunds if it manages to get customers where they wanted to go on the same date via another flight.

When an airline decides to cancel a flight, it automatically tries to book passengers on another flight leaving about the same time and heading to the same destination. If that happens, getting a refund is generally not an option.

Refund policies due to cancellations can vary by airline. For example, Delta says that it will pay a refund for any “flight cancellation, diversion, delay of greater than 90 minutes” that the airline is responsible for. United, on the other hand, says that it won’t offer refunds if a flight is cancelled and it gets passengers rebooked on a new flight leaving within two hours of the original departure. And United won’t guarantee a customer is eligible for a refund unless their departure is changed by more than six hours. (For departures between two and six hours, United offers free flight changes but not refunds.)

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Getting a Refund May Take Some Time

As you’ve probably heard, airlines are not only overwhelmed with requests from worried travelers, but are also in dire financial straits. They are currently seeking some $50 billion in assistance from the U.S. government to help them cope with the coronavirus crisis. So, more so than ever, airlines aren’t eager to give money back to people.

If an airline cancels a flight, it is required to notify passengers and make them aware of their options, including getting a simple refund. If you get one of these notifications, it should point you to a web link where affected customers can make flight changes for free or request a refund. If you want a refund, it’s best to start the process as soon as possible — and be patient.

Even before the coronavirus upended the airline industry, getting a refund for a cancelled flight often took two months or so after the request was made. The process could take a whole lot longer these days.

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