Frontier Airlines, along with five foreign air carriers, agreed to refund a total of $622 million to customers and pay $7.25 million in fines for taking so long, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Monday.
The refunds were necessitated by cancellations and delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic but had not yet been paid out. That led to the DOT enforcement action on the six airlines.
Frontier paid the most with $222 million in refunds and $2.2 million in fines. The other airlines, from India, Portugal, Mexico, Israel and Colombia, respectively, paid out as follows, according to a DOT release:
• Air India paid $121.5 million in required refunds and a $1.4 million penalty.
• State-owned TAP Portugal paid $126.5 million in required refunds and a $1.1 million penalty.
• Aeromexico paid $13.6 million in required refunds and a $900,000 penalty.
• El Al paid $61.9 million in required refunds and a $900,000 penalty.
• Avianca paid $76.8 million in required refunds and a $750,000 penalty.
“When a flight gets canceled, passengers seeking refunds should be paid back promptly. Whenever that doesn’t happen, we will act to hold airlines accountable. … A flight cancellation is frustrating enough, and you shouldn’t also have to haggle or wait months to get your refund,” Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said in the DOT’s release.
The DOT alleged that Frontier, for example, changed its definition of a significant delay in order to reduce the number of refunds, according to The Associated Press.
Several of the affected air carriers cited the COVID-19 crisis as the cause of the delay in refunds.
Aeromexico told DOT that “as it faced the possibility that it would need to cease operations, it made the difficult decision to limit how passengers holding nonrefundable tickets could recover the value of those tickets,” Reuters wrote.
Colombian carrier Avianca told DOT that it “had to process approximately seven years’ worth of refund requests in one year with reduced staffing,” according to Reuters.
Air India told DOT that it faced a “flood of refund requests from March 2020 through September 2021,” while TAP Portugal argued that it shouldered “an avalanche of refund requests” that buried its call center, Reuters reported.
America’s Frontier Airlines, on the other hand, noted that it had paid $92 million to customers that, having voluntarily canceled their flights, were not eligible for refunds under federal law.
The move, the airline argued, “demonstrates Frontier’s commitment to treating our customers with fairness and flexibility,” spokesperson Jennifer de la Cruz told the AP.
The DOT does have more enforcement actions underway, but none for American carriers, which responded quickly to provide the required refunds in 2020.
Consumer advocates, therefore, are not yet satisfied, saying that the DOT is sparing others in the domestic air travel industry.
“Frontier was a bad player in all this, and they deserve to be fined, and we’re glad they are paying the refunds they were supposed to pay … the DOT just seems to not want to go after the biggest fish, the ones causing the most problems,” Bill McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the nonprofit American Economic Liberties Project, told AP.
• Brad Matthews can be reached at email@example.com.
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