In addition to more than $7.25 million in civil fines for delaying their refund processes, the Department of Transportation has ordered six airlines to give consumers more than $622 million in refunds promised to them during the pandemic.
Frontier Airlines, which must repay its customers more than $222 million in addition to paying a $2.2 million civil penalty, is the greatest loser.
Tens of thousands of customers were left out of pocket as a result of Frontier retroactively changing its definition of a “major schedule change” at the beginning of the pandemic, according to an inquiry by the DOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection.
Frontier continues to insist that the change in policy it made to save money wasn’t unfair or deceptive and that the airline had only ever received a “very small” number of complaints regarding its policy on schedule changes.
The Denver-based airline regarded a three-hour time difference in a flight’s departure time to be a “significant schedule change” before the pandemic began, but Frontier changed the definition for nearly eight months in 2020 to make the policy less forgiving.
The airline would only provide vouchers in lieu of a cash refund if it was possible to seat travelers on a flight that same calendar day. Passengers who had purchased tickets when the old policy was in effect were subject to a retroactive implementation of the policy.
“When a flight gets canceled, passengers seeking refunds should be paid back promptly,” commented U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg after the fines were announced.
“Whenever that doesn’t happen, we will act to hold airlines accountable on behalf of American travelers and get passengers their money back,” Buttigieg continued.
“A flight cancellation is frustrating enough, and you shouldn’t also have to haggle or wait months to get your refund.”
As well as Frontier, the five other airlines that were slapped with enforcement action were:
Air India – ordered to pay $121.5 million in refunds and a $1.4 million penalty
TAP Portugal – ordered to pay $126.5 million in refunds and a $1.1. million penalty
Aeromexico – ordered to pay $13.6 million in refunds and a $900,000 penalty
El Al – ordered to pay $61.9 million in refunds and $900,000 penalty
Avianca – ordered to pay $76.8 million in refunds and a $750,000 penalty
Numerous airlines claimed that while they had not intentionally delayed refunds from customers, the unexpected spike in refund requests at the beginning of the pandemic had left them scrambling and unable to meet the demand.
Many customers had to wait several months, and some had to wait longer than a year, to receive their requested reimbursements.
Buttigieg has said that other fines and enforcement actions could be announced soon against other airlines, including both domestic and foreign airlines.
The Biden administration’s DOT has taken a consumer-friendly stance and has promised to crack down on hidden airline fees.