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.

“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 Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Bob Casey 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.

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.
Tags Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Bob Casey Chris Murphy Ed Markey Elizabeth Warren Sheldon Whitehouse
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