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Owed a refund on an international flight? Here’s how to get it.


(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

When travelers found themselves with canceled plans as the coronavirus pandemic erupted, Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, says emails began pouring into his inbox from frustrated people waiting on rightfully owed airline refunds. People said they were unable to get through to airlines who had yet to give them their money back.

The problem became so big that it made its way to Congress in May after a group of Democratic senators found that the airline industry could be holding onto more than $10 billion owed to U.S. travelers. According to the Department of Transportation’s most recent Air Travel Consumer Report, consumer complaints about airline service in June 2020 were up more than 900 percent from the previous year, and of the 15,946 complaints received in June, 14,875 were about refunds.

Travelers may feel hopeless if the airline they booked with is international, feeling like there are more barriers to get help from thousands of miles away. But U.S. travelers have rights in these cases: If you booked a flight that takes off or lands at a U.S. airport, even if the airline is international, DOT regulations require airlines who cancel (or significantly change) a flight to make cash refunds available to customers.

That being said, many people are still waiting for their refunds, wondering if, or when, they can expect to see their money again. Here’s how experts say you can speed along the process.

Know your request may be in a long line of refunds

One reader who reached out about a refund woe had a dream trip to Italy canceled in June because of the pandemic. Alitalia Airlines had said her money would be refunded, but it offered no timeline on when she would receive it. By October, the money still hadn’t arrived. According to the airline, the reason was the immense backlog of customer requests.

A spokesperson for Alitalia Airlines said that between mid-February and early October, the company had processed more than a million refund requests. “The refund requests still to be analyzed to date are approximately 270,000 for an estimated total amount of approximately 60 million euros,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Keyes says that while travelers normally could expect a refund in a relatively quick period of time, “the airlines and the banks have just been totally inundated with refund requests and complaints,” he says. “It’s taking a lot longer to get through the backlog. And so I think there’s hope even if you haven’t gotten good news yet.”

But there may be a way to speed up your refund request. Brian Kelly, founder and chief executive of the Points Guy, waited three months for a refund from a canceled Icelandair ticket. He recommends customers send a succinct email to the airline’s customer service with the reservation number mentioning that they will be filing a complaint with the Department of Transportation.

“That could get your [refund] shot to the top of the pile,” Kelly says.

File a complaint with the Department of Transportation

Once you have found complaining directly to the international airline and threatening to file a Department of Transportation complaint aren’t working, actually file one.

International airlines need to work with the Department of Transportation to conduct business in the United States, and Keyes says customer complaints have had a stronger impact during the pandemic than they have before.

“I’ve heard from a lot of customers who didn’t hear anything when they emailed or called the airline directly,” Keyes says, “but then when they filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation, and the DOT essentially CC’s the airline in their response to the traveler, then they hear a response from the airline.”

The Department of Transportation’s website says that once you file an official complaint, the agency “requires airlines to acknowledge consumer complaints within 30 days of receiving them and to send consumers written responses addressing these complaints within 60 days of receiving them.”

If your flight was taking place within Europe on a European airline, Keyes says, you can also file a complaint with the European Commission. “Their consumer protections are much more robust than in the U.S.,” he says. “If you haven’t been able to get a refund yet, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go and file a complaint.”

Email senior management

Kelly says that after people have tried reaching out to customer service lines and filing formal complaints, they can hunt for email addresses of senior management at the international airline to send their request.

“People do read those emails,” he says. “Instead of just going through the normal customer service, which will probably get you to the bottom of the pile, email senior executives of the airline. They have assistants that look for this type of stuff, and you might get lucky and they may be able to just process your refund so they don’t get a complaint.”

File a claim with your credit card company

If the DOT complaint doesn’t work, Keyes suggests people go to their credit card company if that is how they booked their flight.

“Credit cards have certain protections automatically built in, including the fact that you are required to receive the item, the product, the service that you paid for,” Keyes says.

Having an international airline cancel a flight on you falls under that protection, Keyes says, and sometimes a credit card company will remove the charge from your account and deal with the problem on their end. “The credit card or bank goes and tries to recoup the money from the airline for themselves, which they’re much more equipped to do,” he says.

If you’re not getting the results you’re hoping for from your credit card company, Kelly recommends making your complaint public on social media. “Persistence does pay off in these situations,” he says.

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