AILSA CHANG, HOST:
In this last year, complaints about airlines refusing to give refunds for canceled flights soared. The Department of Transportation says it received nearly 90,000 of these complaints. Many of those would-be travelers are still fighting for refunds, and some with vouchers for future travel are now discovering that those vouchers may soon expire, as NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Last year, Scott Slonim and his wife, Nancy, planned a getaway for the end of March.
SCOTT SLONIM: We were supposed to fly to Washington, D.C., to reunite with our cousin and his wife to see the cherry blossoms, which we had never seen.
SCHAPER: Both are in their 70s and have health concerns. So as the scope of the coronavirus pandemic became apparent, Slonim says their doctors told them not to go. The pandemic would soon decimate air travel. Airlines canceled thousands of flights. But American Airlines hadn't yet canceled the Slonims' flight, so they tried to get a refund.
SLONIM: We started our trip through the American Airlines internal bureaucracy to get to a human being. And ultimately, they responded by saying, well, we could have a credit.
SCHAPER: That's because if the airline cancels the flight, they're required to refund your airfare, but if you cancel, you could be out of luck. And the Slonims scrapped their travel plans before American canceled their flights. A spokeswoman says the airline is providing customers with additional flexibility to make sure those who want to change their travel plans have options to do so and has extended the time to use flight credits through the end of March next year. But the suburban Chicago couple says they have no intention of flying anytime soon, so the American spokeswoman now says they will get their money back. But the Slonims are not alone in feeling burned by the airlines over refunds. The DOT's 90,000 such complaints logged last year is 57 times more than the year before.
BILL MCGEE: I will tell you that I have never seen a single issue generate so much consumer anger. It's off the charts.
SCHAPER: Bill McGee is aviation industry adviser for Consumer Reports.
MCGEE: The airline industry has acted reprehensibly since day one on this issue.
SCHAPER: McGee estimates that the airlines are sitting on at least $10 billion owed to customers despite the fact that airlines got billions in federal funding to keep them afloat.
MCGEE: That was given by taxpayers not once, not twice, but three times without any givebacks for consumers.
SCHAPER: But the industry group Airlines for America says its member airlines refunded nearly $13 billion to customers while hemorrhaging cash last year, and many have eliminated change fees and become more flexible with credits and vouchers for future travel. But now, there's a problem with those, too.
MELANIE LIEBERMAN: Those vouchers are absolutely coming due right now.
SCHAPER: Melanie Lieberman, travel editor at The Points Guy website, says some airlines are extending the expiration dates to later this year or next, but every airline's policy is different.
LIEBERMAN: The best thing you can do is go double-check those dates and make sure you note the fine print, the details of when your voucher needs to be used and when your travel needs to be booked by.
SCHAPER: Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal and Edward Markey are calling on the airlines to offer cash refunds instead of credit for flights canceled during the pandemic and to eliminate expiration dates for travel vouchers. They'll introduce legislation to force the airlines to do just that. Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation says investigations into the many complaints will continue, but thousands of airline customers who were initially denied refunds have since received them. David Schaper, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAME IMPALA'S "PATIENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.