Democratic Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal are pressuring airlines to make sure credits issued for flights canceled during the pandemic never expire, if they decline to offer full refunds.
The two lawmakers wrote to all major airlines on Monday, calling it "unconscionable" that airlines are often refusing to return passengers' money even as the industry sits on more than $10 billion in unused travel credits. Markey and Blumenthal, along with other Democratic senators including then-Senator Kamala Harris, previously asked airlines to issue refunds instead of credits for canceled flights.
Markey and Blumenthal said airlines should follow through with non-expiring credits or refunds regardless of whether the airline or the customer canceled the trip.
"Although many air travelers had to cancel flights due to no fault of their own, many airlines have denied them the cash refunds they deserve, and are instead issuing temporary flight credits that are now beginning to expire despite the ongoing health emergency," Markey and Blumenthal wrote. "Accordingly, we write to urge your airline to make all flight credits — including those already issued and those that have expired during the pandemic — valid indefinitely by default."
"We must first reiterate our belief that your airline should offer a cash refund for all tickets on flights canceled during the coronavirus pandemic, whether by the airline of traveler," they continued. "Americans need cash in their pockets to pay for food, housing and prescriptions during this emergency. It is unconscionable that airlines are largely refusing to return customers' money even as the industry sits on more than $10 billion in unused travel credits. However, even as we continue to push for cash refunds, it is imperative that, at a minimum, your company does not subject pandemic-related flight credits to an expiration date."
Southwest Airlines said in a statement that customers who either booked travel or had travel funds that would've expired between March and September 2020 have until September 7, 2022, to use those funds. The airline said it was the first carrier to start extending travel funds for their passengers at the start of the pandemic.
"We offered the flexibility of a two-year extension during the earliest days of the pandemic, when the largest volume of our customers had their travel plans impacted and without knowing what was ahead of us," the Dallas-based airline said. "We and customers knew more about the pandemic and its impact in the fall, therefore offered customers our 12-month flexibility to use funds and continue to work with customers on a one-on-one basis."
Like Southwest, many major airlines have given customers more time to use travel vouchers that would have expired last year during the early months of pandemic, when federal health officials urged people to sharply curtail their flying and states issued stay-at-home orders to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
Customers of American Airlines and United Airlines have through March 2022 to use credits for pandemic-affected travel, while Delta Air Lines credits are valid through the end of 2022. Travel credits issued from March through June 2020 by JetBlue expire after two years, while those issued after June 2020 are valid for one year. Allegiant Air fliers also have two years from the booking date to use vouchers issued after March 2020.
Alaska Airlines' credits that expire this year are good through December 31, while vouchers from Frontier Airlines are valid for up to one year from the issue date. Credits issued by Spirit Airlines since March 2020 can be redeemed for trips through December 31.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only recently acknowledged that fully vaccinated Americans can resume travel within the U.S., without testing or quarantining.
The airlines have received billions in economic stimulus payments from the federal government and taxpayers during the pandemic.
The senators gave the airlines until May 28 to respond to a number of questions, including whether they will provide a full cash refund for all canceled trips and whether they will nix all expiration dates for travel credits.