Democrats introduce bill to guarantee cash refunds for canceled flights

Democratic lawmakers on Monday introduced a bill that would require airlines to provide cash refunds to travelers when they cancel or significantly delay a flight.

The bill, which would codify a Department of Transportation rule mandating cash refunds, comes as passengers continue to grapple with widespread delays and cancellations stemming from technical problems and a shortage of workers. 

The measure would also give travelers the right to a cash refund if they cancel their flight at least 48 hours before their scheduled departure. Airlines commonly give travelers a voucher that can only be used to purchase another ticket with that carrier and has an expiration date. 

“Enough is enough: Travelers are sick of wasting their valuable time fighting the airlines to receive their legally-required cash refunds,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said in a statement. “And they are tired of making flight reservations months in advance, only to face a health scare that forces them to choose between canceling a nonrefundable flight, or traveling and risking the health of their fellow passengers.”

The Cash Refunds for Flight Cancellations Act is backed by Sens. Markey, Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.). Reps. Steve Cohen (Tenn.), Jesús García (Ill.) and Jamie Raskin (Md.) are introducing a companion bill in the House. 

Supporters of the bill say that airlines often offer customers a voucher without informing them that they are legally entitled to a cash refund if their flight is cancelled. They point to a 2021 Wall Street Journal investigation revealing that top airlines racked up $10 billion in unused travel credits at the end of 2020 as travelers canceled their trips due to COVID-19. 

The bill would require airlines to provide refunds within 30 days of a canceled flight, or a voucher, if the customer prefers, that would be redeemable indefinitely.

Travelers have inundated lawmakers with complaints about flight disruptions and refunds after high-profile meltdowns this summer. American carriers canceled roughly 1,400 flights over the Fourth of July weekend and more than 3,400 flights over the Juneteenth holiday weekend, according to analytics firm masFlight.