Senators Markey, Warren, Blumenthal, Murphy and Harris to Introduce Legislation Requiring Airlines Return Billions to Consumers During Coronavirus Pandemic

May 13, 2020

Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) today announced the Cash Refunds for Coronavirus Cancellations Act of 2020. This legislation would require major airlines and third-party ticket sellers to offer full cash refunds for all cancelled tickets during the coronavirus pandemic, regardless of whether the airline cancelled an entire flight or the passenger cancelled their individual ticket.

Deciding not to fly is the right choice for public health. Yet, when travelers proactively cancel their tickets, the airline industry only provides vouchers, not cash. And even though airlines are required under federal law to offer cash when they cancel an entire flight, most airlines only offer to rebook passengers or provide a voucher as the default option instead, forcing customers to jump hoops to actually get their money back. In response to these anti-consumer practices, the Senators previously sent a letter to eleven major domestic airlines, demanding cash refunds for all cancelled tickets during the coronavirus pandemic. Their investigation further revealed that the airline industry could be holding onto over $10 billion of hard-earned money from American travelers.

“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 multi-billion 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.”

“Working families everywhere are being crushed under the weight of this pandemic, and they need cash returned to them now to help feed their loved ones, put a roof over their heads, and pay for their health care needs,” said Senator Warren. “I’m glad to partner with Senator Markey on a bill to require airlines to provide customers with full cash refunds—not travel vouchers—for flights canceled during this public health emergency and economic crisis.”

“Americans need and deserve their hard-earned cash back when the pandemic prevents them from flying, no matter when their tickets were booked,” said Senator Blumenthal. “Consumers should receive cash refunds, not just credits, regardless of whether they or airlines cancel the flight. Airlines continue to mistreat and mislead taxpayers, after taxpayer money paid for massive bailouts. I’m proud to introduce this legislation with my colleagues to help put an end to this egregious anti-consumer behavior and ensure Americans get cash back in their pockets at this critical time.”

“Congress allocated billions of dollars to airlines to help them stay afloat during this pandemic, but the airlines continue to play games with their customers,” said Senators Murphy. “Rebooking is impractical for many consumers, especially given the uncertain nature of the future course of the pandemic. I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing legislation to require the airlines to provide refunds.”

“This is simple– airlines must give consumers their money back for cancelled flights during the coronavirus pandemic, regardless of who made the cancellation. I’m glad to partner with Senators Markey, Blumenthal, Warren, and Murphy to protect consumers with this new legislation,” said Senator Harris.

A copy of the legislation can be found here.  

Specifically, the Cash Refunds for Coronavirus Cancellations Act would:

  • Require major airlines and third-party ticket sellers to offer full cash refunds for all cancelled tickets during the coronavirus pandemic, no matter whether the airline canceled the overall flight or the passenger canceled their individual ticket
  • Permit airlines and third-party ticket sellers to offer travel vouchers as an alternative to cash refunds, as long as that voucher is valid indefinitely and the offer includes clear and conspicuous notice of the flyer’s right to a cash refund
  • Allow airlines to pay for cash refunds with any emergency money made available by Congress, except for the CARES Act grants designated for supporting worker payroll expenses and employee benefits
  • Establish that the new right is retroactive to any flight on or after March 1, 2020, so that passengers who previously received a travel voucher, but have not used it, can ask for a cash refund now
  • Mandate that cash refunds be available until 180 days after the end of the nationwide COVID-19 emergency declarations, which will give consumers six extra months of flexibility and peace of mind so they don’t have to travel until they truly feel safe flying again

“The airlines just received a multi-billion dollar taxpayer bailout and want to continue holding onto passengers’ ticket dollars as well. Frankly, that doesn't fly,” said Janet Domenitz, Board Chair of U.S. PIRG and Executive Director, MassPIRG. “It's customers’ money. Airlines have a responsibility to return it on request during this crisis.”

“Offering vouchers might be a defensible policy in ordinary times, but in a crisis of this magnitude, it is simply unfair to deny refunds to customers who canceled their flights,” said Anna Laitin, Director of Financial Fairness and Legislative Strategy, Consumer Reports. “The airlines should provide refunds to all customers whose travel plans were impacted by this unprecedented public health and economic crisis. With so many Americans out of work and facing financial hardship, a voucher for future travel is simply not appropriate or useful.  These consumers need their money back.”

“Consumers, facing one of the most devastating economic catastrophes in our nation's history, need every cent to make ends meet,” said John Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications, and Fraud, the National Consumers League. “It should be unconscionable that airlines would play games with giving consumers cash refunds when flights get canceled. We applaud Senators Markey, Warren, Blumenthal, Murphy, and Harris for introducing this common-sense consumer protection bill which will ensure that consumers get the refunds they deserve without having to jump through the airlines' hoops.”

“Airlines are supposed to serve the public and they should be obliged to put passenger welfare first,” said Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy at Consumer Federation of America. “We support Senator Markey’s call for the airlines to offer cash refunds to people who don’t want to gamble with their lives by flying during this health emergency.”