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Can United Airlines really refuse to refund my canceled flight?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

When United Airlines canceled part of Brian Ostenso’s flight to Australia, he responded with a request for a refund. But then, just as swiftly, the airline sent him a $6,824 future flight credit for the missed trip instead.

But Ostenso didn’t want a future credit. He wanted a refund for the entire flight that United Airlines canceled.

So what went wrong?

This tale is yet another example of how casually airlines often try to avoid providing cash refunds for canceled flights. To be clear, if United Airlines—or any airline—cancels part of your itinerary, it owes you a refund. Unfortunately, many carriers are hoping you don’t know this fact.

Editor’s note: This case comes from our archives. I originally published this article during the pandemic, but the guidance remains as relevant as ever.

Flying to Australia … or maybe not

Ostenso was looking forward to his journey to Australia. His flight with United Airlines would first take him to Auckland before his final destination of Sydney.

The United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Auckland was canceled.
The trip Ostenso was hoping to take before United Airlines canceled the long-haul flight to New Zealand.

“I was scheduled to leave on March 22,” Ostenso recalled. “Even days before, everything seemed on track for the trip.”

Although there were some indications that the emerging global health crisis that would eventually evolve into a multi-year pandemic might disrupt his trip, Ostenso was ready to go.

But just days before the journey, he received an alert: United Airlines had canceled part of his flight to Australia.

Canceled: Your flight UA917 from SFO to AKL because of an unexpected operational issue. We’re sorry for the cancellation and are working to get you on your way.

Only one part of the flight itinerary is canceled

United Airlines had canceled the long-haul portion of Ostenso’s flight to Australia, San Francisco to Auckland. Without that part of the itinerary, there was no reason for the rest of the trip.

Ostenso was disappointed that the coronavirus had put the brakes on his plans. But he assumed he’d qualify for a full refund for the entire itinerary and take the trip at a later date. After all, United Airlines had canceled the primary part of the flight and made it impossible to get to his destination.

But when Ostenso called United Airlines to request that $6,824 refund, he got a surprise.

United Airlines: Your only option is future flight credit

That call to United Airlines did not go as planned.

Obviously, if you’re flying from the United States to Australia, the most crucial leg of that journey is the one that takes you across the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, United Airlines canceled that critical part of Ostenso’s flight itinerary. That left a gaping hole in his travel plans and he just wanted a refund. He explained all of that to the United Airlines agent.

“She told me that United Airlines policy in this circumstance was to issue a future flight credit,” Ostenso told me. “This representative told me that I had no other option.”

This statement certainly was not true. The Department of Transportation requires airlines to refund passengers if the airline cancels their flight. However, sometimes airlines do not make obtaining these refunds easy.

Regular readers of my column may recall the case of Lon Allen. His case was even more perplexing because a United Airlines agent provided misleading information to him when he asked her for specific guidance about his refund eligibility for a canceled flight. That caused him to almost lose over $8,000—that is until his complaint landed on my desk.

Before you jump to the conclusion that this type of airline shenanigans is limited to United, I’ll bring your attention to the case of Michael Spanel. American Airlines canceled his original flight to Greece and then sprung a replacement option that required a connection in New York City through two different airports miles from each other. When Spanel declined this circuitous route and canceled the flight, he received the same response to his refund request as Ostenso and Allen. Things changed after he reached out to Consumer Rescue. Spanel received his cash refund and went to Greece on a nonstop flight with another airline.

But let’s get back to Ostenso.

United Airlines: “We’re sorry your plans changed.” Here’s a flight credit

After his unusual phone call with United Airlines about the possibility of a refund for his canceled flight, Ostenso received a follow-up email.

There was the announcement of a future flight credit and a bizarre statement from United Airlines.

Dear Brian,

We see that you recently cancelled a flight with United. We wanted to let you know about a few changes to the way you can apply the value of your ticket to your future travel.

Your unused tickets are now valid for up to 24 months from the date of ticket issuance, so you’ll have more time to decide how best to apply the credit to fly with us in the future. Because your original travel dates fell within our waiver period, you won’t need to pay any change fees to rebook your travel, and you’ll be able to apply the full value of your unused ticket toward a future flight. You don’t need to take any action now — your credit has been automatically extended. If your original flight was significantly impacted by a United schedule change, you may be eligible for a refund in lieu of the credit. If you’re interested in exploring this option, please visit united.com/refunds.

We look forward to seeing you onboard again in the future and extend our best wishes to you in these extraordinary times. (United Airlines to Ostenso)

I didn’t cancel any part of this flight, United Airlines did!

Huh?

Ostenso had not canceled any part of his itinerary. United Airlines canceled the central part of his flight. When he “explored” his refund option with the United Airlines agent, she told him it was no option at all.

He decided to try again. Ostenso requested a refund through the link in the email from United Airlines. Soon, he received yet another strange response from the airline. This message announced a refund, but it bent the definition of a refund beyond bounds.

Hey, United Airlines, that’s not a refund

Dear Brian Ostenso:

We’re glad we were able to help you with your refund!

The Electronic Travel Certificate may be used for future travel on United – and United Express®-operated flights, and it must be redeemed by the expiration date using the PIN number provided below. As the original recipient of the certificate, you can arrange travel for another person as long as you don’t sell it or make a barter arrangement in exchange. Please visit united.com or call 1-800-UNITED1 for booking information. You can also stop by one of our worldwide offices.

Amount: $6824.55

United Airlines

Ostenso had reached the end of his patience. But then he had one more idea.

He decided to ask our advocacy team to convince United Airlines that it owed him a cash refund.

Unusual tactics to avoid making required refund payments

When the pandemic began pounding the travel industry with mass cancellations in early 2020, thousands of pleas for help hit our team. We began seeing a surprising turn of events. In those unusual times, many companies were deploying unusual tactics aimed at dodging required refund payments.

Ostenso’s problem, while not atypical, had been going on for several months by the time he reached me. I quickly read through his paper trail. The blocks that he hit on multiple levels as he tried to obtain the refund that the airline owed him were maddening.

He had struggled long enough.

It was time to get an answer from United Airlines and find out what went wrong here.

The Good News: United Airlines is giving you a real refund

I sent Ostenso’s case over to our contact at United Airlines and asked why the airline hadn’t offered him a cash refund for his canceled flight.

For some reason, the United Airlines agent did not give him the option of a refund. Instead, he received an announcement of a travel certificate. Brian purchased his tickets directly through United. And United Airlines canceled the flight, so he is owed a refund for this ticket. I’m not sure what happened here. Could you ask your team to take a look and see if we can get his refund processed?

Thank you! 

Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer advocate

And that did the trick. Within days, Ostenso’s battle for his refund from United Airlines ended in a victory. I received an email that confirmed the carrier processed the $6,824 refund back to Ostenso’s credit card. He couldn’t be more relieved.

How to make sure you get the refund an airline owes you if it cancels your flight

  1. Know the facts about your refund eligibility
    Get the facts about your eligibility for a refund if an airline cancels your flight — any part of it. The Department of Transportation requires airlines to provide a cash refund if you purchased your ticket directly. It’s important to note that, unfortunately, if you bought your ticket through a third party, the DOT rules don’t apply. You’ll need to work directly with your booking agent to determine your refund eligibility. The third-party agent may only owe you a future travel credit. It may also charge you a fee for its services. This is another reason it’s always best to book directly with the airline.
  2. Be persistent and take your refund request up the executive chain
    If you know that the regulations are on your side, be assertive and make your refund request in writing. Send the request to increasingly higher levels of the airline’s executive chain. If you need help finding a real person to reach, Just ask Meera, Consumer Rescue’s research valet). She’ll be happy to provide you with the name and contact information of someone at the airline who we know to be super helpful to customers. In your correspondence with the airline, make sure to cite the DOT rules. Be polite and brief, and follow the problem-solving tactics found in my article on the topic.
  3. Ask the Consumer Rescue team for help
    If you’ve followed all of our self-help guidance and have been unable to get results, ask the Consumer Rescue team for help, and we’ll investigate. We’re always here to help — 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
  4. File a complaint with the Department of Transportation
    If all else fails, you can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation. Often, an inquiry from the DOT will push the airline to process your refund if it has canceled your flight. Keep in mind the airline has up to 60 days to respond to your complaint. So you’ll need lots of patience if you choose this route. Here’s how to file a missing refund complaint with the Department of Transportation. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)
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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.
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Strick

Why is anyone surprised. This is United airlines after all.

DChamp56

They’ll do everything they can to not give you cash. Pretty sad.
Great job as always Michelle!

Michelle Couch-Friedman

Thanks, Dave:)

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