Flurry of canceled flights sparks push for Congress to protect air travelers’ rights

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Struggles in the skies are impacting Minnesotans and folks around the country with about 20 flights canceled so far Thursday at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and more than a thousand nationwide.

It’s being driven by staffing shortages caused by the omicron variant and bad weather.

Alaska Airlines is actually asking people to reconsider flying if they don’t have to and Jet Blue is proactively reducing its schedule through Jan. 13.

Minnesota-based Sun Country also experienced a nationwide meltdown over the last week which left Jessica Rushenberg and her family of four practically stranded in Texas after the airline abruptly canceled their return flight home on Tuesday.

“They said we can either refund the portion of your tickets that are unused or they can put us on the next flight out which was going to be Monday,” she said.

The next available flight on Sun Country was six days later. Rushenberg decided to rent a car and make the eight-hour drive to Dallas to catch a more expensive flight home Thursday.

“I feel like there should have been at least some additional support from Sun Country on their end,” she said.

According to Thrifty Traveler, this all too common scenario only leaves consumers with two basic rights: a refund for the unused fare or a ticket on the next available flight even if it’s days later.

“It’s very, very clear at this point that until there are concrete penalties for the airlines when they do this — when they cancel flights by the hundreds every single day — this is going to keep happening,” said Kyle Potter, executive editor of Thrifty Traveler.

Just Thursday, the consumer traveling website published its first-ever editorial calling on Congress to “step up for travelers’ rights.”

Thrifty Traveler is pushing for further protections, similar to Europe or Canada, that would force airlines to compensate passengers for massive disruptions.

“It was a matter of standing up for consumer rights and highlighting a glaring lack of protection for people who are traveling in the United States today,” Potter said.

In a statement late Thursday, a spokesman for Sun Country told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS the airline worked with “as many passengers as possible to re-accommodate travel.”

The airline acknowledged that it would have been nearly a week for some customers to return back to Minneapolis because earlier flights were booked.

“These passengers were offered a full refund of the cost of their entire flight reservation,” plus a $200 flight voucher for future travel, according to the airline’s statement. However, Rushenberg said she was only offered a refund for the unused portion.

Airlines for America, a trade group that represents most major air carriers, said in a statement to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that U.S. carriers have issued approximately $20 billion in cash refunds since the pandemic started.