The U.S. Transportation Department took a hard stance on consumer protections on Monday (Nov. 14), ordering six airlines to issue $622 million in passenger refunds while also slapping them with $7.25 million in penalties.
The "historic enforcement actions" ensured the airlines paid required refunds "to hundreds of thousands of passengers who had their flights canceled or significantly changed," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told reporters, as reported by Reuters.
"It shouldn't take enforcement action from (USDOT) to get airlines to pay the funds that they're required to pay."
Airlines are required by the DOT to issue a refund if their flights are canceled for any reason, even if the ticket was bought as nonrefundable.
Refunds also apply to additional fees like a baggage fee or seat assignment.
Reports say that many of the refunds involved flights delayed or cancelled during the pandemic, and many travellers reportedly waited months – even years – to get their money back.
Ultra-low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines was required to pay $222 million in refunds and will pay a $2.2 million (USD) penalty, while Air India will pay $121.5 million in refunds and a $1.4 million fine, Buttigieg said.
TAP Portugal will issue $126.5 million in required refunds and pay a $1.1 million penalty, and Colombia's Avianca will pay $76.8 million in refunds and a $750,000 penalty.
El Al Israel Airlines will issue $61.9 million in refunds and pay a $900,000 penalty, and Aeromexico will pay $13.6 million in required refunds and a $900,000 fine.
The U.S. Transportation Department said it is investigating other carriers.
The department, notably, credited airlines with some payments for nonrefundable tickets against the penalties: Frontier got a $1.2 million credit, TAP Portugal $550,000, El Al $450,000 and Avianca $375,000.
"A flood of complaints"
The U.S. agency said it has received "a flood of complaints" from travellers who didn't receive "timely refunds" after cancelled or significantly changed flights since the pandemic first impacted air travel in 2020.
“When a flight gets cancelled, passengers seeking refunds should be paid back promptly. Whenever that doesn’t happen, we will act to hold airlines accountable on behalf of American travelers and get passengers their money back.” Buttigieg stated in a press release.
“A flight cancellation is frustrating enough, and you shouldn’t also have to haggle or wait months to get your refund.”