Come Fly with Me Another Day– No COVID Refunds for Consumers

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Just as water only flows downhill, money seems to only flow in one direction—out of the wallets of consumers and into the coffers of corporations, nary to return. This has never been so evident as during the COVID-19 crisis, in which hundreds of thousands of consumers, taken unaware by the crisis, purchased pre-paid services that they now cannot use, or dare not to use, because of the pandemic. Although these purchases are either now worthless, or literally “worth less,” many businesses are recalcitrant to refund money for bargained-for services that they are now unable to provide.

The difficulty in obtaining “COVID refunds” is an issue that permeates every strata of pre-paid consumer services. Prior to March of 2020, consumers paid money in advance for professional sporting events, concert tickets (e.g. In re: StubHub Refund Litig., MDL No. 2951), hotels, vacation rentals, cruises, summer camps, youth sports programs, and college tuition. See Latisha Watson v. The University of Southern California, et al., No. 20-04107 (C.D. Cal., filed May 5, 2020) (seeking refunds for student tuitions for the Spring 2020 academic semester due to COVID-19). The list goes on. Then there is the airline industry.

All of the major airlines have enacted COVID-related refund and flight change policies. However, some consumers allege in recently filed actions that their chosen airlines refused to refund money for air travel that they failed to deliver. A case in point is Southwest Airlines customer Adrian Bombin, who purchased two tickets to Havana, Cuba, in February 2020. According to Bombin, Southwest cancelled the flights and could not offer any other comparable flight to Cuba. Still, the plaintiff was not given a refund, but was only offered a credit for use on a future flight. See Bombin v. Southwest Airlines Co., No. 20-01883 (E.D. Penn., filed April 13, 2020). Other consumers have filed similar actions. See Rudolph v. United Airlines Holdings Inc. et al., No. 20-02142 (N.D. Ill., filed April 6, 2020) (alleging United denied a refund for cancelled flight, and offered only rebooking or ticket credit for travel within one year); Levey v. Concesionaria Vuela Compania de Aviacion SAPI de CV et al., No. 20- 02215 (N.D. Ill., filed May 8, 2020) (alleging Mexican airline Volaris canceled several of its U.S. flights to Mexico amid the coronavirus pandemic and refused to refund its travelers or let them rebook their flights without penalty).

The problem is so widespread that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued an enforcement notice on April 3, 2020, clarifying airlines’ refund obligations in the context of the COVID-19 public health emergency. See U.S. Department of Transportation Issues Enforcement Notice Clarifying Air Carrier Refund Requirements, Given the Impact of COVID-19. Nevertheless, some airlines remain recalcitrant to provide refunds, as is evidenced by the allegations in these later-filed class actions.

Although these airlines contend that they have operated within the law, it is evident that the opportunity or ability of most consumers to engage in air travel has all but been severely curtailed or eliminated due to the pandemic. Offering travel credit is not a solution under these circumstances. Consumers are subject to numerous travel restrictions, possible quarantine on arrival, a risk of infection through close contact with other air travelers, and now, unpredictable flight cancellations that risk loss of airfare in many cases. The possibility that travelers may someday receive the air travel is not a solution in these unprecedented times. Sometimes “someday” means never.

We plan to keep the filed cases Bombin, Rudolph, and Levey on our radar and see where they land.

Authored by:
Robert Friedl, Senior Counsel