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Democratic senators call on domestic airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers

Democratic senators call on domestic airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers
© Greg Nash

Democratic Senators on Tuesday called on domestic airline carriers to reimburse Americans for canceled flights because of coronavirus travel restrictions and disruptions, particularly for U.S. citizens stranded abroad.

In letters to at least 11 airline carriers, senators demanded cash refunds be provided over travel vouchers.

Critics of the travel vouchers as a method of reimbursement say they are doing little good to provide relief amid the crisis.

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“We write to urge your airline to issue full cash refunds to all customers who cancel their flights during the COVID-19 crisis, and to American citizens who encounter flight cancellations while stranded in countries that implemented travel restrictions,” wrote Sens. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyBitter fight over Barrett fuels calls to nix filibuster, expand court FCC reaffirms order rolling back net neutrality regulations Markey rips GOP for support of Amy Coney Barrett: Originalism 'just a fancy word for discrimination' MORE (D-Mass.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOvernight Defense: Dems want hearing on DOD role on coronavirus vaccine | US and India sign data-sharing pact | American citizen kidnapped in Niger Conservative operatives Wohl, Burkman charged in Ohio over false robocalls Senate Democrats want hearing on Pentagon vaccine effort MORE (D-Mass.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden pushes into Trump territory The Hill's Campaign Report: One week from Election Day | Biden looks to expand map | Trump trails narrowly in Florida, Arizona The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - One week out, where the Trump, Biden race stands MORE (D-Calif.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersIntercept bureau chief says congressional progressives looking to become stronger force in 2021 Obama book excerpt: 'Hard to deny my overconfidence' during early health care discussions Americans have a choice: Socialized medicine or health care freedom MORE (I-Vt.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharStart focusing on veterans' health before they enlist Durbin says he will run for No. 2 spot if Dems win Senate majority Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE (D-Minn.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyBitter fight over Barrett fuels calls to nix filibuster, expand court Democrats warn GOP will regret Barrett confirmation Democrats brace for nail-biting finish to Senate battle MORE (D-Conn.), Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocrats warn GOP will regret Barrett confirmation GOP Senate confirms Trump Supreme Court pick to succeed Ginsburg Senators battle over Supreme Court nominee in rare Saturday session MORE (D-R.I.) and Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseySenate Democrats hold talkathon to protest Barrett's Supreme Court nomination Two Loeffler staffers test positive for COVID-19 Healthcare, retirement security seen as top issues for older voters, lawmakers say MORE Jr. (D-Pa.).

The Senators said that most domestic airlines have taken steps to temporarily waive coronavirus-related change and cancellation fees, but noted that reimbursements for flights are provided with travel vouchers instead of full refunds.

“Americans need money now to pay for basic necessities, not temporary credits towards future travel,” the senators wrote.

While the U.S. has yet to institute a domestic travel ban, most states and counties have instituted stay-at-home orders that discourage any travel outside of the home unless absolutely necessary.

Airline travel has dramatically dropped off because of the pandemic and travel restrictions imposed by various countries including the United States. Industry groups have reported planes traveling with between 10 to 20 percent passenger capacity.

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Earlier this month, the federal government carved out $25 billion in loans and loan assistance to passenger air carriers as part of its most recent coronavirus economic stimulus package.

The senators called it an “unprecedented bailout” that should be put toward cash refunds for travelers.

“It would be unacceptable to us for your company to hold onto travelers’ payments for canceled flights instead of refunding them, especially in light of the $25 billion bailout that the airline industry just received from Congress,” the senators wrote.

“We urge you to offer cash refunds for flight cancellations so that Americans can better weather this crisis.”

The letter was sent to 11 airlines: Alaska Airlines; Allegiant Air; American Airlines; Delta Air Lines; Frontier Airlines; Hawaiian Airlines; JetBlue airways; Southwest Airlines; Spirit; Sun Country airlines; and United Airlines.

The senators called for a response to their letter by April 7, asking for a commitment to reimburse with cash canceled flights or that travel vouchers be provided with no expiration.

They also called on airlines to continue working with the State Department on repatriation flights for tens of thousands of U.S. citizens stranded abroad.

Americans repatriated through efforts by the State Department are required to reimburse the federal government for the cost of the flight, with ticket prices typically reflecting the cost of a full-fare economy ticket.

Bipartisan lawmakers in the House have proposed legislation that would have the State Department waive the cost of flights for repatriated Americans. 

The State Department urged Americans abroad to take advantage of commercial options when available. Yet the border closures led to uncertainty over flight availability, and airlines promoted tickets that were quickly canceled without notice.

Americans stranded abroad report having little communication with their chosen airlines over the canceled flights and instances of companies refusing to reimburse their ticket.

The State Department has worked with commercial airlines to run flights from foreign countries back to the U.S. since the department announced its cooperation to help repatriate citizens. 

United Airlines has flown approximately 21 flights between the U.S. and cities in central and South America to repatriate nearly 2,500 Americans stranded abroad.

Since Jan. 29, the federal government has helped at least 25,572 Americans return to the U.S. from 59 countries, according to figures from March 31.
 
This report was updated March 31, 4:55 p.m.