Complaints over airline refunds explode during pandemic as travelers try to navigate rules

Ryan Raiche
Updated: December 23, 2020 10:27 PM
Created: December 22, 2020 08:35 PM

The normal stress of the holiday travel season has a new wrinkle this year as families are forced to change plans and navigate the complex rules enforced by commercial airlines.

For tens of thousands of travelers, that process has been anything but smooth.

According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Transportation, complaints this year over refunds exploded by more than 6,000%.

Vicki Armstrong is one of the unhappy customers.

“We’re all very upset. We were looking forward to going on a trip,” she told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.

Armstrong had planned to be on the beach back in March to celebrate her daughter’s 21’st birthday in Ft. Myers, Fla.

She said Sun County Airlines offered to change her reservation for free due to the pandemic.

The family re-booked the trip for this coming January, thinking the situation would be better.

“Obviously, we've been watching TV and pandemic is still going on, and the government pretty much telling us it's still not safe travel,” she said.

According to her correspondence with the airline, Sun Country wouldn't budge. Armstrong would have to pay hundreds of dollars to push back the trip again.

Sun Country is one of a long list of U.S. airlines that received a flood of complaints through September of this year, according to a DOT report released this month.

The report found that there were more than 78,000 complaints over refunds at U.S. airlines during the pandemic this year. During the same time period last year, there were about 1,000.

“It was a nightmare for travelers, there's no two ways about it,” Kyle Potter, executive editor of Minneapolis-based Thrifty Traveler, said. “Every airline has done pretty horrible in terms of informing people of what their rights are, so that creates another layer of confusion.” 

Potter said one of the biggest complaints he’s heard is from customers not receiving full refunds over canceled flights.

As the health crisis continues, he expects more outrage over vouchers that may expire.

“Airlines need all the help that they can get and, angering people by saying, 'Your voucher ends next month,' when you still can't travel is not a good move,” he said.

Sun Country did not respond to questions about its change fees during the pandemic, but in a statement said it’s “diligently working to ensure that travel is as safe and hassle-free as possible during these uncertain times.”

Meanwhile, Armstrong still doesn’t know what to do. If her family follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and changes its plans, it appears it will cost them extra, one way or another.

“It's not that we're not going to fly someday. It's just right now it's not safe to,” she said.

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