The Airline Refund Game

We’ve all heard about how badly airlines are being hit by the Current Situation and how some of them are requesting and getting government bailouts. Part of me sympathizes with all of the airline and airport workers affected, and part of me doesn’t want to use public funds to bail out companies whose recent past behavior has been rapacious and mercenary, to say the least, and who often treat their customers poorly (I refer you to dwindling seat sizes, sardine tin densities, and grotesque baggage fees).

Many countries have now banned in-bound flights and any travel not deemed essential. Argentina just announced a total ban on all flights until September 1st, which has shocked airlines that usually fly there. Are more of those restrictions coming and what does it mean for those of us riding out the storm in a foreign land?

Due to my nomadic lifestyle, I made a number of flight reservations for this spring and summer that have been affected by travel disruptions. I’ve also made attempts to reserve flights back to the U.S. at the end of May, in case my Schengen visa is not extended then by the French authorities. I’ve gained some insight into how airlines are reacting to the crisis and how some are using their customers as a source of “free loans”.

Many airlines are now switching from offering refunds when they cancel flights to offering passengers vouchers for future flights. In Europe, refunds for flights “cancelled for any reason” are legally required, but airlines are counting on passengers not knowing that. They’ve changed the Refund buttons on their web sites to links to Voucher Request pages. Good luck finding out how to get a refund from the information on these web sites. I’ve been mostly successful in contacting airlines reps via Facebook Messenger and holding firm in politely requesting a full refund. Mentioning European Commission Article 5, which mandates refunds, seems to help.

But it irks me that the airlines are essentially being deceptive about it, using passenger money to fund their current operations against a promise of future delivery of service (not necessarily guaranteed either, if an airline goes bust, as some may).

What airlines am I talking about, exactly? British Airways, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Air France, and Aer Lingus, to name just those I’ve had personal experience with. It particularly steams me that some of them continue to sell tickets for flights they probably have no intention of providing – I bought a United ticket and then the very next day returned to its web site and discovered that the flight was now cancelled (they did not contact me). Really? That sounds a lot like “farming” passengers for revenue, knowing they won’t issue refunds to many of their “punters”, and close to fraud.

Sure, I understand these are strange times and the restrictions are constantly changing. But, in reality, it’s not that fluid and the restrictions are being changed or extended by governments on announced schedules, so don’t try to fob me off with those excuses.

The bottom line (pardon the pun) is that most airlines these days are large, capable, highly-profitable companies (2018 post-tax industry profits: US $15b, EU $8b), many of whom in the U.S. enjoy near geographic monopolies. Yet, they don’t seem to see the value in treating their customers well during these difficult times.

I’m not the only one to sound the alarm about this. Read this article in Forbes magazine for more insights:

Beware The Airlines Selling Tickets For Flights That Will Never Take Off

Well, listen up airline CEOs: the travel industry landscape has radically changed now and won’t recover quickly, and we passengers, with little else to focus on, will remember when making our future plans how your airline treated us during these difficult times.

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