Opinion: Airlines have gotten away with it long enough

Editor’s note: Jill Filipovic is a New York-based journalist and author of the book ‘OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind’. Follow her on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his. View more opinions on CNN.


In my line of work – and probably yours too – I can’t collect payment for a service, refuse to perform it, refuse to issue a refund, and expect to remain legally and reputationally in the clear. If I did that, and especially if I did it over and over again, I would expect to be sued, shunned, and ultimately out of a job.

But I’m not an airline.

This week, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that six airlines have been forced to issue $600 million in refunds. The DOT is also fining airlines $7.25 million for flights canceled during Covid and not refunded. Those facing fines include Frontier, Air India, TAP Portugal, Aeromexico, El Al and Avianca.

It’s about time this industry saw some consequences. The airline industry posted record profits last summer, canceling and delaying a huge number of flights. When an industry fails to do its one job right yet continues to make money in spades, there’s a big problem — and it’s one that burdens consumers.

I am one of them. I had booked a TAP Portugal flight to Lisbon in Spring 2020 which obviously didn’t happen due to Covid. It’s understandable: I didn’t expect to board a flight during a global pandemic. But since the flight didn’t work out, I expected my money back. For over a year and a half I have not received it, despite texting and calling both TAP and Expedia. Finally, in December 2021, I received a partial refund, albeit still far below the full cost of the ticket.

Something similar happened last Christmas – I flew to Kenya for the holidays on a ticket booked with Chase credit card points and on 23rd December I received an email saying Emirates had canceled my return flights and, as it turned out, he also canceled all his flights out of Nairobi, stranding my husband and me. We had to book a last minute one way flight home with another airline, during one of the busiest travel times of the year.

After weeks of back-and-forth with Emirates and Chase, and in that particular purgatory you are pushed into when trying to recover your losses from two large companies, neither of which wants to take financial responsibility, we have never been reimbursed by either of the two – even if I do I have expired Emirates credit in my Chase account, an offer now invalid to fly with an airline I hope never to set foot on.

Virtually no other industry can operate this way. And it’s astounding that airlines can sell you a ticket to get from point A to point B, not fly the plane from point A to point B and then keep your money – or issue you a credit that they know you’re unlikely to. have it used, so you can repeat the same operation.

Covid has obviously complicated things. Some cancellations are due to lack of staff. But it’s hard to feel sorry for an industry that accepted massive government bailouts, cut its staff anyway, and then claims it simply doesn’t have the staff to operate its scheduled flights with full knowledge of its limitations, especially when that industry has charged the most and grossed record revenue.

According to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the DOT “will increase penalties” until airlines change their behavior. And that’s frankly the least they can do. Time and time again, airlines exploit the fact that their customer base is captive, often eager to get where they were going and with few alternatives. And so passengers get mixed up with all kinds of insults and outrages, from the major ones like cancellations to more mundane and minor offences, like seats too small for the average human being and being petty to expect to carry a bag with them.

At the very least, if airlines don’t deliver the service they’ve sold—flying a plane on the scheduled day and time—they should pay. If they significantly delay flights, they should pay for or provide passengers with a place to stay and something to eat, rather than making them stand in line for hours to pick up meager and limited vouchers. They should issue refunds automatically and quickly, without requiring passengers to spend hours hounding them for refunds. And if they don’t, they should expect to see exactly what’s happening now, thanks to the Buttigieg DOT: paying far more than if they’d just done the right thing in the first place.

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