Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey want airline passengers to get more than just credit for canceled flights in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.
In a letter Tuesday to 11 major domestic airlines, the two Massachusetts Democrats and seven of their colleagues called on the companies to issue full cash refunds to customers who cancel their flights during the COVID-19 crisis, as well as Americans who have had flights canceled while stranded in countries that implemented travel restrictions in response to the pandemic.
While most airlines have waived change and cancellation fees amid the dramatic drop in travel due to the contagious virus, customers are currently only being offered vouchers for future travel — often valid for only a few months — in exchange for canceled flights. For example, JetBlue, the largest carrier at Logan Airport in Boston, is waiving fees on flight changes through May 31, but customers must rebook their trips by Oct. 24.
And even when airlines themselves have canceled flights due to international travel restrictions, many are not offering full refunds — potentially in violation of federal rules — as the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. To use JetBlue as an example again, the airline is instead offering a credit valid for 18 months; others are also offering limited-time vouchers or charging fees for cancellations.
Warren, Markey, and their colleagues argued Tuesday that, if the airline industry is getting $25 billion in federal grants to help them get through the pandemic, it needs to be more generous to customers who are also feeling “enormous financial strain.”
“Families need cash to pay for essentials such as food, housing, and medical care,” they wrote. “In light of this pressing need and the unprecedented bailout — to the tune of $25 billion — that the airline industry just received from Congress, we believe your company has a moral responsibility to provide real refunds, not travel vouchers, to consumers, and to support State Department efforts to repatriate any American citizens trying to come home.”
The letter was sent Tuesday to the CEOs of Alaska Airlines, Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Sun Country Airlines, and United Airlines. It was also signed by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Bob Casey (D-Penn.).
CNBC recently reported that the number of people screened at airports last week was down 92 percent compared to the previous year. According to WBUR, passengers at Logan were down 76 percent between March 16 and March 22 compared to the same period in 2019.
The letter Tuesday comes after Congress devoted $58 billion of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill to the airline industry. The financial aid to the industry includes $25 billion in loans to passenger airlines, as well as another $25 billion in grants that the industry does not have to pay back. In exchange, airlines are required to keep their workers on payroll through the end of September. For her part, Warren has repeatedly called for all industry bailout funds to come with conditions protecting workers.
However, the senators focused on the consumer side. In their letter Tuesday, they asked the 11 companies to calculate the value of the vouchers they have offered and press the airlines to offer refunds.
They added that it would be “unacceptable” for the companies not to do so, again emphasizing the “$25 billion bailout that the airline industry just received from Congress.”