Smith-Sires Bill Requires Refund Money for Canceled Air Travel during COVID-19 Pandemic

Ties Support for Airlines to Reimbursements to Customers

April 21, 2020

U.S. airline customers, whose travel and flight plans have been upended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will receive full-fare airline refunds—regardless of who initiated the cancelation—under a bipartisan bill introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) with lead cosponsor Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ). 

     “Many consumers have been left to fend for themselves as they try to get answers and their money back from air carriers and third-party travel services for trips they’ll never get to take,” said Smith, author of HR 6566, the Airline Travelers Equity Act of 2020. “These cancelations are born out of circumstances beyond a traveler’s control. Yet they have been flatly denied refunds or in some cases issued a credit to be used only within a required timeframe.

     “That’s unacceptable—people’s lives and plans have changed dramatically. The airlines—and third-party bookers—should be as understanding as the American taxpayers who are helping the airlines through our federal stimulus bill,” Smith said referencing the fact that the airlines are receiving billions in support from the U.S. taxpayer to help them through the economic impact of COVID-19.

      “In this time of financial uncertainty for so many Americans, airlines should not be forcing people to jump through hoops to get refunds for canceled trips,” Sires said. “I believe that this is a commonsense fix that will allow people to stay home without having to worry if they will get their money back.”

     The Smith-Sires bill mandates that any US air carrier or third-party travel service seeking a federal loan or grant under the CARES Act (Public Law 116-136) must provide refunds to individuals—whether the trip was canceled by the consumer or the air carrier—so long as the trip was to have been taken place during the covered coronavirus emergency period, defined in the bill as March 13, 2020 until 30 days after the national emergency declaration terminates.                  

     Current regulations require US carriers to provide a refund of fares paid by consumers when an airline cancels its flight. During this national crisis however, some flights continued even as travelers were advised to stay home or feared an inability to return due to domestic shelter-in-place policies and/or international lock downs. HR 6566 recognizes that regardless of the flight status, the COVID-19 public health emergency necessitated a change in plans. 

    In response to public outcry, on April 3, 2020 the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) issued a notice telling air carriers to advise passengers who were issued vouchers that they have the option to receive a refund. Unfortunately the problem remains, prompting some travelers to file lawsuits against certain air carriers refusing to provide a refund.

    “Tragically, thousands of people are now out of work and may need the money—their money—for items other than travel,” Smith said.  “Justice dictates that those companies receiving relief through the emergency coronavirus federal stimulus package, should be helpful and accommodating to their customers caught in the same crisis,” he said.