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Five U.S. senators have introduced legislation that would require major airlines and ticket sellers to provide consumers with cash refunds for all cancelled tickets during the COVID-19 pandemic. If passed, it would make the airlines legally responsible for refunding consumers for flights that the airlines cancelled as well as for tickets that the passengers cancelled, even if the flight in question took place as scheduled.
The legislation was announced today, following yesterday's Department of Transportation "enforcement notice," reiterating airline responsibilities to consumers and asking them "to revisit their customer service policies and ensure they are as flexible and considerate as possible to the needs of passengers who face financial hardship during this time." The DOT noted that it typically receives an average of 1,500 complaints per month, a number that skyrocketed to more than 25,000 complaints in the months of March and April 2020, with many of these relating to refunds.
The proposed legislation, titled the "Cash Refunds for Coronavirus Cancellations Act of 2020," would cover flights originally scheduled for March 1, 2020, or later. It was introduced by Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). The lawmakers stressed that the refunds should be obligatory, considering that the airlines have received more than $50 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds.
"Americans need cash in their pockets to pay for food, housing and prescriptions, not temporary credits toward future travel," said Senator Markey. "In light of this pressing need, and an unprecedented multibillion-dollar bailout, it's absolutely unconscionable that the airlines won't give consumers their money back. Airlines already have a moral responsibility to give cash refunds for all cancelled tickets during the coronavirus pandemic. My new legislation will give them a legal responsibility, too. I thank Senators Warren, Blumenthal, Murphy and Harris for their partnership."
The act, the full text of which can be found here, would allow airlines and third-party ticket sellers to pay the cash refunds using any federal relief funds related to the COVID-19 pandemic, excluding CARES Act grants designated to cover employee benefits and payroll expenses. It would also allow the airlines to provide consumers with travel vouchers instead of cash refunds, as long as the voucher is valid indefinitely. Refunds would be available until 180 days after the end of the nationwide COVID-19 emergency declaration, providing a six-month cushion of flexibility for consumers who may not feel safe flying right away.