- The Department of Transportation is investigating several airlines over complaints of slow refunds.
- It received 102,561 aviation consumer complaints last year, marking a 568.4% increase from 2019.
- Many of these are about refunds for cancellations, delays, and flyers postponing due to COVID-19.
- See more stories on Insider's business page.
The past year has been hellish for many commercial flight passengers due to COVID-19, massive flight delays, cancellations, and other disruptions. In a lot of these cases, passengers sought refunds. But they didn't always get them promptly, if at all.
Now, the Department of Transportation is investigating more than a dozen airlines over complaints that they've been slow to issue refunds during the pandemic, according to a new report from the agency. The report gives new details on the probe, which has been underway for months.
It mentions, for example, that the department received a whopping 105,327 consumer complaints about flight refunds from January 2020 to July 2021. This figure represents an increase of 4,552% when compared to an equivalent period of time pre-pandemic.
"In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines had difficulty processing, in a timely manner, the significant volume of refund requests that they received," the report reads. Many airlines were also initially reluctant to provide the required refunds."
In the five years before the pandemic hit, the DOT fielded an average of 17,420 complaints per year from flyers, and only around 8% of these gripes were about refunds.
Last year was different. In 2020, the DOT received 102,561 complaints from flyers, and more than 87% of these submissions were about refunds.
The vast majority of refund complaints involved incidents when passengers say airlines canceled or significantly changed their flights, as well as instances in which passengers chose not to fly due to COVID-19 concerns.
To better manage inquiries into complaints, the DOT says it aims to increase the number of staff handling complaints by 38% for this year. The report also said the department plans to "issue a rulemaking that would address protections for consumers who are unable to travel due to government restrictions," noting that current regulations don't say whether to issue refunds in cases like these.
The DOT has opened investigations into 20 airlines for failing to provide refunds promptly, and 18 of these investigations are still ongoing, the report says.
The investigation into United Airlines has been closed. United had been considered to be "engaging in an unfair and deceptive practice and violating the Department's rule requiring carriers to provide prompt refunds when due," the report says. In response to the investigation, United amended its refund policy, and thousands of passengers who were initially denied refunds got their money back around last June.
The DOT has also wrapped up its investigation of Air Canada. The department said in June that it is seeking fines of $25.5 million from Air Canada after passengers said it took them anywhere from five to 13 months to get a refund from the carrier.
"Airlines and ticket agents have a legal obligation to refund consumers if the airline cancels or significantly changes a consumer's flight," the report says. "This obligation to refund passengers for flights cancelled or significantly changed by airlines remained unchanged notwithstanding the COVID-19 pandemic."
The report's release follows a summer of chaos at the airport. Airlines like Southwest, Spirit, and American experienced days-long stretches of hundreds of delays and cancellations over issues like bad weather and operational challenges. Passenger violence onboard flights has also spiked during the pandemic.