As millions of Americans hunker down in their homes to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, airlines have been forced to slash flight schedules and cancel thousands of domestic and international flights in response to travel restrictions.
Now, a proposed class action out of Illinois is claiming United Airlines is subjecting its customers to “additional hardship” by refusing to issue cash refunds for canceled flights—instead offering only travel vouchers that expire after one year.
The case claims that United has both a legal and moral obligation to provide struggling customers with monetary relief after canceling their flights, especially considering that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) is set to provide an approximately $58 billion bailout to airlines. As the complaint puts it:
“Travel vouchers provide little security in this public crisis, particularly where many individual Americans need money now to pay for basics like food and rent, not restrictive, temporary credits towards future travel . . . But despite the faucet of taxpayer money that will flow its way, United refuses to comply with the law or operate in the interests of its customers.”
United’s Cancellation Policy
According to the case, United has taken “a variety of steps” to “make it difficult, if not impossible,” for customers to receive a refund for flights canceled in response to COVID-19.
Throughout seven days in March, the airline apparently changed its refund policy four times in an effort to retain money paid by customers. While the “pre-pandemic” policy, as the lawsuit dubs it, allegedly guaranteed a full refund when flights were canceled or changed by over two hours, the airline ultimately settled on a policy that provides credits, not refunds, for canceled flights, the case says. Under the current policy, the suit explains, customers whose flights were canceled may choose between rebooking their flight or receiving a travel voucher that expires one year “from the original date of purchase,” after which a refund may be issued.
According to the case, United’s delayed refund policy contradicts “established transportation requirements,” including those issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation. As stated on the DOT’s website:
If your flight is cancelled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation – even for non-refundable tickets. You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment.”
The lawsuit notes that the DOT, in response to customer complaints regarding canceled flights, issued an enforcement notice on April 3 in which the agency reminded airlines that “passengers should be refunded promptly when their scheduled flights are cancelled or significantly delayed.”
“Although the COVID-19 public health emergency has had an unprecedented impact on air travel, the airlines’ obligation to refund passengers for cancelled or significantly delayed flights remains unchanged,” the DOT stated.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit, a Minnesota police officer, claims he was deceived by United after being told when he purchased tickets for travel on April 4 that he would be eligible for a full refund if his flight was canceled. Contrary to the airline’s representations, the plaintiff was allegedly denied a refund for three tickets worth $1,521.45.
U.S. Travel Restrictions
On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a “public health emergency of international concern.” The next day, the federal government restricted travel from China as the first step in a wave of travel restrictions that would span the coming months, the case explains.
By late February, the suit goes on, the U.S. had issued its highest-level “do not travel” warning for areas in Italy and South Korea that were the hardest hit by the coronavirus and had blocked all travel to Iran.
March saw the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, triggering the beginning of domestic travel restrictions. According to the New York Times, at least 42 states have issued various forms of stay-at-home or “shelter in place” orders as of April 7, 2020.
In response to mounting travel restrictions and decreased domestic bookings, United has canceled thousands of flights and cut its flight schedule by 50 percent for April and May, according to the lawsuit. For context, the airline and its regional carriers allegedly operate over 4,900 flights per day under normal travel conditions, which amounted to over 1.7 million flights in 2019. The case says the airline’s executives expect flight cancellations to continue into the summer.
I Was Denied a Refund. Am I Covered?
The lawsuit looks to cover anyone in the U.S. who purchased a ticket for a United Airlines flight scheduled to fly to, from, or within the U.S. on or after March 1, 2020 and was refused a refund or who will seek a refund in the future.
How Do I Join the Lawsuit?
At this time, there’s nothing you need to do to join this lawsuit. If the case proceeds and settles, anyone affected should receive notice of the settlement that contains instructions on what to do next. You can find out more about that process, including how they get your information, here.
In the meantime, you can have class action news and updates sent to your inbox by signing up for ClassAction.org’s newsletter here.