The Department of Transportation announced a proposal on Wednesday that would require airlines to give passengers refunds if a flight schedule is significantly altered or the airline makes major changes to their itinerary.
In a release, the department said it had received “a flood” of air travel service complaints from consumers with non-refundable tickets who did not travel because of changes or cancellations, as well as COVID-19 pandemic-linked reasons.
The terms for significant change and cancellation, it explained, had not been previously defined.
That has led to “inconsistency” among air carriers and various airlines have reportedly questioned the Transportation Department’s authority to require refunds amid the pandemic.
Significant changes to a flight would be defined as those to a departure or arrival airport, those that increase the number of connections in the flight itinerary, those that impact the departure and/or arrival times by three hours or more for a domestic flight or six hours or more for an international flight and a significant downgrade in air travel experience due to a change in the type of aircraft flown.
A canceled flight would mean a flight that was published in the computer reservation system at the time of the ticket sale but was not operated by the carrier.
In addition, the proposal would require airlines and ticket agents to provide flight credits of vouchers that are valid indefinitely when passengers are unable to fly for certain COVID-related reasons.
Airlines and ticket agents that receive significant government assistance related to a pandemic would be required to give refunds, in lieu of non-expiring travel credits or vouchers.
The proposal faces a public-comment period and an online meeting will be held to discuss the rule on Aug. 22.
“When Americans buy an airline ticket, they should get to their destination safely, reliably, and affordably,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “This new proposed rule would protect the rights of travelers and help ensure they get the timely refunds they deserve from the airlines.”
Consumer complaints filed with the department rose nearly seven-fold in 2020 from the year before, and 87% were about refunds.
Airline complaints nearly tripled in May compared with the same month three years ago, according to a recent department report.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.