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DOT Slaps British Airways with $1.1 Million Fine for Refund Issues

The British flag carrier has been fined more than $1 million by the USDOT for failing to reimburse passengers affected by flight cancelations during the pandemic

by Lauren Smith

June 5, 2023

Photo: British Airways 777-300ER. Courtesy of Nick Morrish/British Airways

British Airways failed to issue timely refunds to passengers after it canceled or rescheduled thousands of transatlantic flights during the coronavirus crisis in 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) said, as it fined the U.K. flag carrier $1.1 million for the failings. The airline insists it “acted lawfully at all times.”

The DOT said that between March and November 2020—as airlines globally grounded flights and borders closed—British Airways’ website instructed customers impacted by cancellations and significant flight changes to contact the carrier to “discuss refund options.”

Photo: British Airways Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. Courtesy of Arkin Si / Unsplash.

However, the DOT noted that British Airways “failed to maintain adequate functionality of its customer service phone lines” during this time. With customers having no way to submit a refund request through the carrier’s website, they could not obtain refunds for disrupted travel for months.

During the same timeframe, British Airways “had misleading information on its website, which led consumers to inadvertently request travel vouchers instead of refunds,” the department said in a consent order published this week.

Together, these issues caused “significant challenges and delays in thousands of consumers receiving required refunds,” the department said in issuing the penalty.

The DOT also noted that since March 2020, it had received 1,200 complaints from consumers alleging that British Airways failed to issue timely refunds after canceling or significantly changing flights to or from the United States. In addition, the department said British Airways had received thousands of more direct complaints and refund requests.

The fine will be a “strong deterrent to future similar unlawful practices,” the DOT said. British Airways will, however, be credited $550,000 toward the fine because it issued more than $40 million in refunds to customers with non-refundable tickets affected by cancellations and schedule changes in 2020 and 2021.

Photo: British Airways, Boeing 777-200ER. Courtesy of London Gatwick Airport

British Airways apologized for the inconvenience to customers but insisted it had acted lawfully, including paying more than five million refunds since the beginning of the pandemic.

The airline said: “We’re very sorry that at the height of the unprecedented pandemic – when we were unfortunately forced to cancel thousands of flights and close some call centers due to government restrictions – our customers experienced slightly longer wait times to reach customer service teams.”

“During this period, we acted lawfully at all times and offered customers the flexibility of rebooking travel on different dates, or claiming a refund if their flights were canceled.”

More Airlines Being Fined

British Airways isn’t the only airline to be penalized by the DOT for its treatment of customers during the pandemic. Last month, it fined Chilean LATAM Airlines Group—the biggest carrier in Latin America—$1 million for failing to issue prompt refunds for its disrupted U.S. flights during the pandemic. The government said it had received 750 direct complaints from consumers about delayed refunds from LATAM and its subsidiaries.

Photo: LATAM Airlines Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. Courtesy of Delta Air Lines

In November 2022, the DOT charged six airlines—Frontier Airlines, Air India, TAP Portugal, Aeromexico, El Al, and Avianca—a total of $7.25 million for similar delays. It forced them to return more than $600 million to consumers.

“When a flight gets canceled, passengers seeking refunds should be paid back promptly,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “Whenever that doesn’t happen, we will act to hold airlines accountable on behalf of American travelers and get passengers their money back. A flight cancellation is frustrating enough, and you shouldn’t also have to haggle or wait months to get your refund.”

The U.S. government also fined Air Canada $4.5 million in civil penalties for dragging its feet on pandemic-era refunds. However, the DOT had initially sought a massive $25.5 million from the airline.

In January, the department said it would be tougher on airlines for violating consumer protection laws in the future, promising to “deter future misconduct by seeking higher penalties that would not be viewed as simply a cost of doing business.”