FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – The novel coronavirus has indefinitely disrupted airline travel for millions of Americans.

Mounting confusion and frustration among consumers has led the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue an enforcement notice to carriers, reminding them of their obligations to customers during COVID-19.

Instead of spending their anniversary in Maui, the McInnises are celebrating in a different way: at home in Denton, waiting for a nearly $5,000 refund from American Airlines.

“It would cover a couple of months of bills,” said Tom McInnis.

Since American Airlines canceled the trip in early April, McInnis said the company agreed to refund the money within the next few days.

That’s because whenever an airline cancels or significantly delays a flight, it must refund the customer.

“The longstanding obligation of carriers to provide refunds for flights that carriers cancel or significantly delay does not cease when the flight disruptions are outside of the carrier’s control,” the memo stated.

However the notice does not define the term, “significant delay,” creating a potential gray area for carriers.

Even if passengers are owed a refund, they must still contact the airline directly, according to Rick Seaney, the CEO of Farecompare.

“Just remember, these refunds come back very slow,” Seaney said. “When you pay for a ticket, the money goes out fast, but it comes back slow.”

Separate lawsuits have been filed against Southwest, Delta and United on the issue of monetary refunds (see lawsuits at bottom of page).

In each case, passengers claimed the airline offered vouchers or rebookings instead of refunds, even though the carrier had cancelled the trip.

Of course, there are instances when customers may not receive a monetary refund.

For example, a Southwest spokesperson said eligible customers who decline a rebooking or future travel funds can receive refunds in their original form of payment.

That means if a consumer used points to book travel, she would receive points as her refund.

Carriers are not obligated to give refunds if the customer cancels the trip first. Seaney said in those instances, many airlines are still trying to be flexible in light of COVID-19.

“They’re waiving change fees and penalties for everything you purchased, and they’re also extending the amount of time you can take your next flight, all the way in some cases until the end of 2021,” Seaney said.

But McInnis said customers should always be allowed to spend their refunds on their own terms, as opposed to conditions set by the airline industry.

“There’s a huge difference because then I can use the money however I want to, when I want to,” McInnis said.

Seaney said while it’s helpful to hurl frustrations at the airlines on social media platforms like Twitter, he advised customers to exercise patience while speaking with customer service representatives who are now inundated with an unprecedented demand for refunds.

“They’re there to help you,” Seaney said. “Help them help you.”

If you are dealing with securing a refund via social media, be sure to provide the airline with your full name, reservation number, flight number, and date of scheduled departure.

Customers who feel they were improperly denied a refund can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Consumers can also dispute the charges with their credit card company if they believe an airline owes them a refund after canceling or significantly postponing a flight.

Southwest, Delta and United issued the following statements in response to the lawsuits they are now facing over refunds:

Southwest:

“Southwest Airlines offers some of the most Customer-friendly policies in the industry. In light of the current circumstances, we previously made additional changes to our already flexible policies. If a flight is cancelled by Southwest, Customers may select a new flight between the same origin and destination on a new date (currently extended until 60 days from the original date of travel) without paying any difference in fare, may receive travel funds for future use (currently extended to September 7, 2020), or may request a refund to the original form of payment.

Southwest will review this complaint and will defend our policies accordingly as our focus is always on taking care of our Customers, especially during these unprecedented times.”

Delta:

“Doing right by our customers through refunds and rebookings has been—and will continue to be—a key focus as we manage through this unprecedented global pandemic. The named plaintiff in this suit first requested a refund on April 15—two days before the lawsuit was filed. We expedited the refund process and gladly issued his refund.”

United:

“Since the start of the COVID-19 health event we have implemented new policies to give our customers flexibility during these extraordinary times by allowing them to change their travel plans without a fee. Passengers can automatically rebook eligible trips to an alternative flight for no fee or request an electronic travel certificate, so they can choose a flight in the future. Eligible travelers on domestic and international flights can request a refund on United.com or may call our contact centers if their flights have been severely adjusted or service to their destination suspended either due to government mandates or United schedule reductions related to COVID-19. We are proud of the role our company and our employees play during this crisis and continue to operate to nearly every domestic destination as well as six international markets across the globe including our partner hubs. We cannot comment specifically on active litigation.”

READ LAWSUITS HERE:

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