MAHTOMEDI, Minn. — The pandemic cancelled or postponed millions of flights and trips. And some families are finding, when they go to use credits or try to get refunds, they are out of luck.
Last Christmas, months before the pandemic, Gabe Smoley and his wife decided to surprise their three kids with a trip to Disney World.
“They were just ecstatic,” he recalls.
He and the kids booked tickets for Spring Break on Frontier Airlines. His wife booked a separate flight on Delta.
The kids were so excited Gabe bought a countdown timer to tell them how long until they left for Orlando. That timer remains paused at 1 day and 7 hours because the newly emerging coronavirus pandemic forced Disney World to close.
“When we had to tell our kids Disney World was cancelled. That was rough,” he said.
Delta automatically refunded his wife’s ticket.
But getting back the $1,200 Gabe had spent with Frontier was a different story. Initially, they offered a voucher.
“They said they were going to give me a voucher which I thought at the time was fine. We had no idea how long this was going to last,” he said.
By the summer, COVID was still with us, but the voucher had already expired. Gabe says when he got in touch with Frontier, a staff member said they would make an exception and gave him 48 hours to book a new flight.
“You can’t book a family vacation in 48 hours,” he said. His wife is a teacher, so they’re limited to school breaks.
They tried to use the voucher by booking flights for MEA weekend in October. As the date grew closer, the family grew more skeptical about whether that trip would actually happen.
Then Gabe got an email from Frontier alerting him to a change. His direct flight to Orlando was being re-routed through Denver with a four-hour layover. A big enough change, he thinks, to justify a refund under federal guidelines.
Plus, the ten hours of flying would significantly cut into the time the family would have to enjoy the trip.
“The whole thing became just kind of a disaster,” he said. Again, Frontier offered a voucher. But by this time flights over the next Spring Break had more than doubled in cost to more than $700 per ticket.
“That’s way out of the budget,” he explained. “All we really want is just to get our money back.”
In an email Gabe shared with KARE11, Frontier said no.
“There’s no consumer protection. So, when I’m trying to get a refund from an airline, they can just keep my money and there’s nothing I can do about it,” Gabe said.
He is one of a growing number of travelers frustrated at airlines’ refund and voucher policies for flights during the pandemic.
A monthly report by the federal office of Aviation Consumer Protection shows there were more than 63,000 complaints about refunds filed from April through July this year. That’s 103 times more than the same time period last year when just 616 complaints were filed.
The problem is so widespread that 40 state attorney generals – including Minnesota’s Keith Ellison – wrote a letter to Congress in October demanding any federal funding for the airline industry be coupled with consumer protections, including refunds for customers who cancel or change flights because of COVID-19.
The letter mentions complaints against Frontier Airlines by name.
“Flyers are reaching out. They’re frustrated. They’re upset,” said Zach Griff of the travel website The Points Guy.
“They think these airlines are being so flexible, they’re allowing me to change my flight for free. Before it used to cost $200. But when they go and actually make that change and especially with Frontier, they are basically suckered into taking vouchers that really expire within 90 days,” he said. Many customers don’t know when they’ll feel comfortable flying again.
Fortunately, Griff says, if you are fighting for a refund, sitting on a worthless voucher or need to change a flight because of COVID, you have some options.
First, wait to cancel a flight until the last minute. If the airline cancels first you get a refund.
Second, he says ask your credit card company to fight for you. Many have successfully clawed back money.
If that doesn’t work, make a formal consumer complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation. They can compel the airline to work with you.
“This is one of the – kind of best methods to getting a refund when the airline says no,” Griff advises.
KARE 11 reached out to Frontier Airlines. They defended their policies in a statement:
We sincerely apologize to our customers for the unprecedented impacts to air travel that have resulted from the global pandemic and are working with them to accommodate their travel wishes, within our policies. If a customer voluntarily cancelled their reservation, as a courtesy due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we waived cancellation fees and provided a full travel credit for eligible non-refundable tickets. Please note that travel does not need to occur within the period the credit is valid for. The customer simply needs to book travel by the expiration date. Travel can be scheduled all the way through November 2021 and those reservations can be changed for no fee up until 60 or more days prior to the travel date. Any fare difference would apply. We recognize that some customers may have unintentionally allowed their credits to expire recently and we encourage those folks to contact our Customer Care Center so we can review their reservation record and assist them.
As for Gabe’s situation, Frontier wouldn’t budge on a refund, but a spokesman said in an email, “We are reaching out to the customer directly to extend their current credit, giving them more time to rebook travel.”
With another Christmas approaching, Gabe’s last Christmas gift to his kids appears to be another casualty of the pandemic.
“I’m kind of proud of how they handled the disappointment. I just hope at some point we can get back there.”
Here’s a few more tips if you are thinking of booking travel according to Griff:
- Make sure to research cancellation policies ahead of time.
- Check the expiration dates on any vouchers you might have and make sure to use the ones that expire first.
- Do not buy travel insurance to hedge against COVID concerns. Most of the policies don’t cover changes because of the virus.