Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
CLOSE ×
Search
Leaving AARP.org Website

You are now leaving AARP.org and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

Airline Passenger Refunds 101

Smart tips to remember when your flight is canceled or delayed

Toy plane on a desktop with a pile of 100 dollar bills
gerenme/Getty Images

The past month hasn’t been kind to airlines and their passengers. 

​Just three weeks after a winter storm and Southwest Airlines’ technology failure caused the cancellation of thousands of flights, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) computer glitch caused more than 6,700 flight delays and more than 1,000 cancellations across the United States, leaving passengers wondering when and if they’d make it to their destinations at all.

member card

AARP Membership — $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now

​Gary Bembridge, a London-based cruise vlogger, was connected to the Wi-Fi on his flight to Miami when he saw the news alert about the glitch.

​“I kept refreshing the feed and watching the flight map to see if we were going to turn around,” Bembridge recalled. “I was nervous for about half the trip as flights were not being given the go-ahead, and worried we’d be diverted. In [the] end we landed, and immigration unusually had no lines.”

​A preliminary investigation into the interruption determined that a data file was damaged by personnel who failed to follow procedures, according to a spokesperson for the FAA. The agency also said they are working to “further pinpoint the causes of this issue and take all needed steps to prevent this kind of disruption from happening again.”

​“Air passengers have been through a lot, especially in the last year with the disruptions we’ve seen,” said Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg in an interview with CNN following the incident. “We’ve been able to make some major gains in terms of accountability for airlines when it comes to their customer service. We equally have to make sure that the FAA has the systems, the staffing and the operations that it needs to serve our passengers well.”

Refunds 101

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Aviation Consumer Protection program, you may have rights if your travel plans are impacted by a flight delay or cancellation, depending on the reason behind the delay or cancellation. The program applies to all U.S. airlines: Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United

​As an airline passenger, you are entitled to a full refund of the airfare you paid if: 

  • The airline cancels your flight for any reason (e.g., weather, mechanical issues, staffing issues) and you decide not to travel.
  • The airline has made a schedule change or significantly delays your flight and you decide not to travel.​

Most major U.S. airlines including American, Delta, United, Southwest and JetBlue have dedicated online resources for requesting a refund and checking on the status of a refund. Additionally, if you paid one class of service and are involuntarily moved to a lower class, you are owed the difference in fares. A refund is also in order if you purchased optional services like baggage fees, seat upgrades, or in-flight Wi-Fi and cannot use those services due to a flight cancellation, delay or schedule change.

Travel

Budget

Up to 30% off base rates and other benefits

See more Travel offers >

​Take note: Airlines are not required to refund passengers for incidental expenses accrued due to a delayed or canceled flight, like food, a hotel room or a rental car. That said, it’s always a good idea to check directly with an airline agent to determine what compensation they will offer. 

By the book

For quick reference in regards to which airlines have made commitments to compensating passengers when controllable cancellations occur, the USDOT has created a one-stop source: the Airline Customer Service Dashboard.

​“One good thing about this administration is that they made a dashboard that’s really easy for consumers,” says John E. DiScala, founder of the travel website Johnny Jet. “Basically, they asked all of the airlines, ‘What will you put in writing that you will give if something goes wrong, whatever the reasons are?’ Now, the trick is to try and get them to enforce it.” 

​The dashboard provides an overview of which airlines have made commitments to compensating passengers when controllable cancellations occur. The USDOT defines controllable in this case as “essentially a delay or cancellation caused by the airline. Examples include: maintenance or crew problems; cabin cleaning; baggage loading; and fueling.” 

​Additionally, according to the USDOT, “Airlines are required to adhere to the promises that they make in their customer service plan, including commitments to care for customers in the event of controllable delays or cancellations. The Department will hold airlines accountable if they fail to do so.”

​For example, all 10 airlines in the program are committed to rebooking passengers on the same airline at no additional cost when a controllable flight cancellation or delay occurs; and all are committed to providing cash or vouchers for meals when a flight delay results in passengers waiting three hours or more.

​All airlines with the exception of Frontier are committed to providing complimentary hotel accommodations for passengers affected by overnight delays or cancellations, as well as transportation to and from the hotel. 

Plan ahead

No one wants to plan ahead for disruptions to travel, but taking some time beforehand can pay dividends.

​“My advice is to know what airline you’re flying and look up what they’re offering if something goes wrong,” says DiScala. “And then, hold them accountable. Make sure to have receipts, take screen shots and take names if you spoke to a customer service agent.”

​If you are entitled to a refund for interrupted or canceled travel, the USDOT requires airlines and ticket agents to make payments within seven business days if you paid by credit card, and within 20 days if you paid by cash or check.

​DiScala also suggested looking into travel insurance and credit cards you may already be carrying, both of which may cover unexpected incidentals due to trip delays.

​“You may have [reimbursement benefits] with travel insurance or your credit card,” he says. “But the airlines need to be responsible.”

​If at any time you run into issues claiming compensation, file a complaint directly with the USDOT.

Join AARP to continue reading

Find exclusive interviews, smart advice, free novels, full documentaries, fun daily features and much more — all a benefit of your AARP membership — on Members Only Access.

Join AARP for Members Only Access

Already a Member?

AARP Travel Center

Or Call: 1-800-675-4318

Enter a valid date

Enter a valid date

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Enter a valid date

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Enter a valid date

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Flight 2

Enter a valid date

Flight 3

Enter a valid date

Flight 4

Enter a valid date

Flight 5

Enter a valid date

+ Add Another Flight

Enter a valid date

Enter a valid date


Occupants of Room 1:



Occupants of Room 2:



Occupants of Room 3:



Occupants of Room 4:



Occupants of Room 5:



Occupants of Room 6:



Occupants of Room 7:



Occupants of Room 8:


Enter a valid date

Enter a valid date

Age of children:

Occupants of Room 1:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 2:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 3:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 4:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 1:

Age of children:

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Enter a valid date

Enter a valid date

Select a valid location

Select a month

Enter a valid date

Enter a valid date