If you're one of the millions of frustrated travelers who had to cancel a trip because of COVID-19 and accept a voucher instead of a refund from your airline, help may be on the way. Two key senators are in your corner, as are most consumer advocates. And they're going to push the Department of Transportation to do something about it.
The situation arose because of the way airline contracts of carriage and DoT rules handle cancellations:
• When an airline cancels your flight, it owes you a cash refund no matter how "nonrefundable" the ticket you bought. Although few lines initially resisted cash refunds, DoT ruled firmly that they owed cash.
• But if you cancel before the airline cancels, even if it's clear you won't be able to travel, the airline owes you only what its contract says it will offer. Typically, at best, that means the airline gives you a voucher you can apply to a future flight within a year or so. In the case of COVID, airlines say their voucher offers were "generous" because they could have enforced their hefty ticket change fees, and in some cases, even offered bupkes: "nonrefundable means nonrefundable."
Almost all such vouchers have a time limit, and many are now about to expire. Some lines have given short extensions, but almost all COVID vouchers are going to expire in a year or less. And, clearly, for a variety of reasons, many of you aren't in a position to use them before then.
Many top consumer advocates have been promised a group meeting with Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and they're all focused on the voucher problem. Some want, as a minimum, a mandatory extension of two years or more; others want to go further and require cash refunds. In either case, tackling this problem is an easy way for Secretary Buttigieg to score a popular "win."
Meanwhile, last May, Senators Markey (D-Mass) and Blumenthal (D-Conn) sent a letter to the presidents of the country's seven largest airlines urging that they voluntarily extend any pandemic-related flight credits indefinitely. The airlines' collective response was downright insulting: Instead of responding to the Senators' specific requests, they had A4A, their trade association, send a vague letter fulsomely praising the airlines' generosity in the face of financial adversity and ignoring the primary issue. That response also highlights the typical big-airline approach to most consumer issues:
• Even after an issue becomes an obvious consumer pain point — one they could easily solve voluntarily—they ignore it.
• When the pain becomes so severe that consumers demand government action, and the government does take action, they whine about "excessive regulation."
Whether by legislation or DoT rule, my guess is that you'll see some action at least to preserve the value of any of your money the airlines are holding. Even better, you might even get your money back.
In other airline news, United Airlines got a lot of PR mileage out of its announcement last week of ordering 15 Boom "Overture" supersonic jets. A few of my colleagues in the press took umbrage, suggesting that United's ordering jets that would serve a tiny very-upscale minority of travelers was a questionable use of government bail-out funds. Here, I have to differ: not that only the rich will ever fly supersonic, but that United actually misused government money. Although I have no inside information, I would be very surprised if United has anything but a trivial amount of money up front. Instead, the most likely monetary consequence is that United's order will help Boom find additional financing.
As for supersonic flight, I have to confess to conflicting emotions. I flew on the Concorde twice, never on any freebie but paying less than 5 percent of the posted fare, and it was great. But even if Boom makes all its projected performance, as a value proposition, supersonic flight will remain iffy for almost everybody. With a first flight in 2029, I don't think I'll even try to get on it.