Coronavirus: Lawmakers want airlines to give you cash refunds, not vouchers

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Millions of Americans have had to cancel travel plans during the pandemic. On top of the disappointment, many are struggling to get money back for prepaid vacations. Now a move is afoot to require airlines to give passengers cash refunds -- not just vouchers.

The pressure is on.

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Consumer groups say airlines benefitted from a big government bailout but they're hanging on to money paid by millions of ordinary Americans for trips they never took. A new Senate bill would require airlines to give you a cash refund for your unused tickets.

Andy Vanderschoot of Napa made reservations last November for a family vacation in May, to celebrate his wife's retirement.

"She said I'd love to go to England and Scotland. Three weeks all over Glasgow, Wales and London," Vanderschoo said.

Of course, at the time he booked, he had no idea what was about to happen.

"The COVID-19 pandemic started ramping up, absolutely everything shut," he said.

As the world stopped, United Airlines canceled the family's flight to London. So Vanderschoot asked United to refund the $5,384 he paid for the tickets. To his shock, United said, "No."

"I very politely but firmly asked for my money back but I was refused continually and got a corporate response, 'We know you're frustrated and we're sorry but we can't give your money back,'" said Vandershoot.

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United instead offered him a voucher good for two years, but Vanderschoot said he may never get the chance.

"I don't know if I want to fly again under the current circumstances. I don't know if I'm gonna want to fly in two years from now; I'm 73 years old," Vanderschoot said.

The pandemic has called into question the wisdom of flying in close quarters in a world where the disease could flare up unexpectedly.

Vanderschoot isn't alone. Two consumer groups -- the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Consumer Reports -- submitted petitions Wednesday with nearly 150,000 signatures demanding airlines give "cash refunds" for canceled trips.

U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and seven other senators are introducing legislation that would require airlines to refund money for all unused tickets during the pandemic -- even if the passenger is the one to cancel. They would not be allowed to force passengers to accept vouchers instead of cash.

Sen. Markey said consumers who willingly change travel plans due to dangers of the pandemic and in compliance with shelter-in-place orders should not have to forfeit their cash, especially when millions are unemployed.

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"Give this money back to passengers, back to consumers. The airlines are keeping it when the passengers, as consumers, as the head of households need this money back for food, for rent, for mortgages," Sen. Markey said..

The U.S. Department of Transportation just issued a warning to airlines saying if they cancel a flight, they must refund passengers in cash --- and not force them to accept a voucher.

The industry group Airlines for America says giving everyone a cash refund would bankrupt the airlines.

However consumer advocates say the industry already received a $25 billion bailout and now are hanging on to about $10 billion paid by passengers who never took their trips, and now need their money just to pay bills.

"The airlines cannot use consumers' money for a piggy bank, consumers need their own piggy bank right now," Sen. Markey said.

"I didn't get a bailout, I didn't get a stimulus check, I didn't get unemployment, I'm living with my own means,'' Vanderschoot said. "I don't think it's fair that they're hanging on to my money."

However, after 7 On Your Side reached out to United Airlines on Wednesday, the carrier agreed to refund the full cost of Vanderschoot's tickets after all. United says it has been updating its policies as circumstances change during the pandemic. Vanderschoot is about to get all his money back.

Vanderschoot was ecstatic. "You guys are fabulous,'' he said.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

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