New Jersey Congressmen Chris Smith (R-NJ4) and Albio Sires (D-NJ-8) have proposed legislation that would require U.S. airlines and travel agents to issue full refunds for travel cancelled due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Airlines or agents who do not comply will be ineligible for federal loans or grants under the CARES Act, the $2 trillion stimulus legislation enacted last month in response to the pandemic inspired economic shutdown.
Current regulations require US carriers to provide a refund of fares paid by consumers when an airline cancels its flight. During this national crisis however, some flights continued even as travelers were advised to stay home or feared an inability to return due to domestic shelter-in-place policies and/or international lock downs. The Smith-Sires bill, HR 6566, recognizes that regardless of the flight status, the COVID-19 public health emergency necessitated a change in plans.
“Many consumers have been left to fend for themselves as they try to get answers and their money back from air carriers and third-party travel services for trips they’ll never get to take,” said Smith, author of HR 6566, the Airline Travelers Equity Act of 2020. “These cancellations are born out of circumstances beyond a traveler’s control. Yet they have been flatly denied refunds or in some cases issued a credit to be used only within a required time frame.
“That’s unacceptable—people’s lives and plans have changed dramatically. The airlines—and third-party bookers—should be as understanding as the American taxpayers who are helping the airlines through our federal stimulus bill,” Smith said referencing the fact that the airlines are receiving billions in support from the U.S. taxpayer to help them through the economic impact of COVID-19.
“In this time of financial uncertainty for so many Americans, airlines should not be forcing people to jump through hoops to get refunds for canceled trips,” Sires said. “I believe that this is a commonsense fix that will allow people to stay home without having to worry if they will get their money back.”
In response to public outcry, on April 3, 2020 the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) issued a notice telling air carriers to advise passengers who were issued vouchers that they have the option to receive a refund. Unfortunately the problem remains, prompting some travelers to file lawsuits against certain air carriers refusing to provide a refund.
“Tragically, thousands of people are now out of work and may need the money—their money—for items other than travel,” Smith said. “Justice dictates that those companies receiving relief through the emergency coronavirus federal stimulus package, should be helpful and accommodating to their customers caught in the same crisis,” he said.