The text from United Airlines popped up on Joe Bushee's iPhone just before dinner on Sunday.
"Your flight UA366 from Hartford to Denver is canceled due to the unprecedented circumstances currently affecting travel,'' it said.
Bushee, 27, a television producer, had already decided not to go on the trip with his college buddies due to coronavirus concerns but hadn't called United to cancel because the airline's website urged travelers to wait until 72 hours before their flight. Bushee's wasn't due to leave until Thursday.
When he called United on Monday, he asked about his reimbursement options. He wanted his $364 back and figured it was a no-brainer since United, not him, canceled the flight. He had received an instant refund for a concert in Denver that was canceled.
Bushee said the agent told him United is not giving out refunds "at this time'' and offered a different flight to Denver or a travel credit good through December. Bushee declined.
He called United back, and a second agent said he was due a refund, but when he tried to process it, the computer only showed a travel credit as an option. The agent told Bushee he hadn't seen any official policy from United about not issuing refunds but figured it was because the airline was losing "a lot of revenue.''
Bushee asked to talk to a supervisor and pressed his case. He was finally promised a refund.
The most frustrating part of the ordeal, he said: "Nobody seemed to know why I couldn't get the refund.''
No major U.S. airline is outwardly touting the availability of cash refunds to passengers whose flights are canceled given the industry's precarious finances, typically offering rebooking or a travel voucher as the first options online and over the phone. (Travelers who cancel upcoming flights on their own can rebook or receive a travel credit, with the change fee usually waived depending on the travel date.)
But American, Delta and Southwest do offer refunds for flights the airlines cancel, their standard practice.
United is playing hardball with travelers who should be eligible for a refund – something it did not do during the Boeing 737 Max crisis that grounded planes and forced thousands of flight cancellations over the past year.
The airline's coronavirus refund policies for travelers whose flights are canceled by the airline are the stingiest of the big four U.S. airlines and appear to skirt the DOT guidelines. An agency spokesperson said the government's rules have not changed: a passenger is entitled to a refund if an airline cancels a flight and the passenger chooses not to accept an alternative flight on that airline.
@united Actions speak louder than words. Refund passengers whose flights you have cancelled. Taking money from people for flights that no longer exist is not a demonstration of unity; it's a demonstration of corporate greed, at best - and theft at worst.
— Lauren Goshen (@lgoshen) March 24, 2020
United's policies are complicated and hard to find on the airline's website or get clear answers about from the airline. Its cancellation assistant bot offers no help on this front.
The bottom line for travelers: United is not offering immediate refunds for canceled international flights and has added a big hurdle for canceled flights within the U.S. The changes came as United and other airlines have slashed flights in unprecedented numbers as travel demand has plunged due to government and business travel restrictions and traveler anxiety.
Domestic flights: For canceled flights within the United States, United is not issuing refunds unless the new flight their computer system automatically put you on delays your departure or arrival by more than six hours. If it doesn't, and you don't want to travel, you'll receive a travel credit for the value of the ticket. (United booked Bushee on a flight three hours later, which required a connection. His original flight was nonstop.) The DOT policy does not mention time frames for determining a refund when a flight is canceled. There is a separate policy on refunds for significant delays caused by a schedule change.
The only exception to United's domestic refund policy: flight cancellations to destinations the airline no longer serves due to coronavirus fallout. Those travelers can get their money back. So far, that list only includes Mammoth Lakes, California, United spokeswoman Leslie Scott said.
International flights: United is effectively delaying any passenger refunds for up to a year. Travelers whose flights are canceled – and this is most international travelers as international flights service has nearly been eliminated – will receive a voucher for the value of their ticket, and if they don't use it within a year of the ticket purchase date, they can then get their money back.
"It seems like they are going out of their way to not be as accommodating as other airlines are, and that's unacceptable,'' said William J. McGee, aviation adviser for Consumer Reports.
Don't want to fly during coronavirus? Don't rush to cancel that ticket
The DOT said in a statement to USA TODAY that the department was aware of complaints regarding airlines’ refund practices and was reviewing the issue.
Scott said United has communicated with DOT about its policies "and they have not objected.''
She also said other major global airlines, including Air France/KLM and Lufthansa, have implemented a similar policy of only offering credits for international flights, some without the option for a refund later.
“We have implemented brand-new policies in the last few weeks to give our customers more flexibility in these extraordinary times. Our policies are transparent and clearly spelled out for our customers, laying out steps to take if their plans change,'' Scott said, mentioning the airline's coronavirus travel waivers. "We’re proud of the role our company – and our employees – play in serving our customers during the most disruptive global crisis that the commercial airline business has ever faced.”
A dream international trip deferred, a refund significantly delayed
Matt Williams, 43, a university professor in the United Kingdom, calls what United is doing during the coronavirus crisis "malpractice.''
Williams and his husband spent more than $4,800 last August for two nonrefundable business-class tickets to San Francisco for a two-week dream trip down the coast of California.
They were supposed to leave April 7. Williams said he called the help line for business-class customers last week to check on the status of his flight. It was still scheduled.
Williams didn't want to cancel because he figured he was due a refund if the flight was canceled by United. Williams said the customer service agent was insistent that he cancel the flight, mentioning the Europe travel restrictions announced in mid-March, and take a credit.
"I was pretty bulldozed into it,'' he said. "I really regret calling them.''
A few days later, United canceled the long-haul flight.
The credit Williams received expires in November, but he said he won't be able to use it by then and would like his money back now. He said he received instant refunds from other airlines including Irish discount carrier Ryan Air, which isn't exactly known for top-notch customer service.
"They sent me an email saying, 'Here's your money.'''
Williams said he has reached out to United executives for help and circled back with a United representative. The agent cited European Union aviation laws, which are generally more liberal than U.S. consumer protections, that say passengers are not entitled to compensation if it was caused by "extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided.''
"Mr. Williams,'' the email said, "COVID-19 is an extraordinary circumstance.''
United (or any airline) canceled my flight and is not offering my money back. What can I do?
1. Keep pressing your case with airline representatives, over the phone (late night is best for lower call volume) or via social media, and cite the DOT policies. Be polite and respectful, not angry and rude. Customer service representatives have been overwhelmed by the crisis.
2. Document everything. Provide dates, times, flight numbers and reservation numbers, McGee said. And always record names, titles, times and dates of all in-person and phone conversations. The more information, the stronger the case, he said.
4.) Contact your credit card company for potential help.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: United Airlines blasted for refund policy during coronavirus crisis