Frustrated travelers tired of waiting for airline refunds: 'I'm not in the business of giving interest-free loans to billion-dollar companies'

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In late July, D.J. Johnson received a $352 refund for a canceled flight — after nearly two months of texts and calls to Delta Air Lines. Johnson isn't happy with how long the refund process dragged on.

"I'm not in the business of giving interest-free loans to billion-dollar companies," says Johnson, who booked a flight from his hometown of Syracuse, New York, to Richmond, Virginia. 

"My $352 is much more valuable to me than it is for them," he tells CNBC Make It. 

D.J. Johnson at Watkins Glen State Park, near his home in Syracuse, New York.
Courtesy of D.J. Johnson

Delta's policy is to "make every effort" to process refunds within seven days. In its messaging to customers, the company cautions that, due to "high volume," refunds can take up to 30 days, plus another two billing cycles for tickets purchased with a credit or debit card. Delta did not immediately respond to CNBC Make It's request for comment.

Johnson is one of many consumers waiting weeks for their refunds this summer. That may be because of the large number of flight cancellations and delays, as the airline industry has struggled to keep up with the post-pandemic demand for travel. On average, 1 in 5 flights arrived behind schedule as of July 2022.

While Johnson accepts that delays and cancellations come with air travel, he doesn't understand why a refund should take weeks to process: "There's one button that somebody has to click to process a refund; it's just them dragging it out as long as legally they're allowed to."

Help could be on the way

Under current Department of Transportation (DOT) rules, you're entitled to a full cash refund if the airline cancels, or if they make a "significant" schedule change to the flight, even for nonrefundable airline tickets.

But the definition of a "significant" delay is poorly defined. According to the rules, whether you'll get a refund depends on a few factors, including the length of the delay and the distance of your flight. The DOT says it determines whether you're entitled to a refund on "a case-by-case basis."

However, last Wednesday the Department of Transportation proposed a new rule that would standardize the meaning of a significant delay, making it much easier to claim a refund. 

If the new rule passes, you will be entitled to full cash refund if:

  • Your flight is canceled
  • Departure or arrival times are delayed by at least three hours for domestic flights, or by at least six hours for international flights, if flyers opt out of taking the flight
  • Anytime the departure or arrival airport changes or the number of connections is increased on an itinerary
  • The original aircraft has to be replaced by another, but there's a major difference in the onboard amenities offered and overall travel experience as a result

The proposal also clarifies that refunds must be paid out by airlines within seven business days if the ticket was purchased with a credit card, or 20 days if it was purchased using cash or a check.

The new rule isn't in effect just yet, at least for few months. After a 90-day public consultation period, the DOT will review proposed changes and decide whether to proceed with the new rule.

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