Where’s My Refund? State AGs Step in to Help

By: - May 4, 2020 12:00 am

Hotels, concert halls and gyms are closed because of COVID-19. Consumers are looking for refunds for canceled flights, concerts and sporting events and some are running into brick walls. Jeremy Hogan/Sipa via AP Images

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The fountains of the Bellagio in Las Vegas danced in his head as William DeBlasio, a painter, carpenter and volunteer firefighter from Berlin, Connecticut, planned a romantic four-day April vacation with his wife, Lynn, to celebrate their 25th anniversary.

Then came the coronavirus.

DeBlasio, 51, tried to get his ,638 in airline tickets refunded. What he got instead was the runaround from American Airlines, he said.

American Airlines canceled the flight for the second leg of DeBlasio’s trip — from Charlotte to Las Vegas — and gave him a refund, required by U.S. regulations. But it refused to refund DeBlasio’s money for the first leg. For that, the airline offered him a travel voucher, good for a year. DeBlasio wasn’t satisfied.

“I didn’t want to go in the next year,” he said, citing uncertainty stemming from the virus, travel restrictions and his unease with leaving home.

Frustrated by the airline and a few fruitless calls to other politicians, DeBlasio contacted the Connecticut attorney general’s office. He said it only took one call from that office to light a fire under the airline and get his refund. “I just didn’t want to be forced to fly,” he said.

Thousands of would-be travelers are after refunds for trips untaken, resorts unvisited, vacant vacation homes and memberships to closed gyms. Airlines have policies, gyms have agreements and Airbnb rentals have rules, but many of the contracts don’t cover pandemics.

State attorney generals’ offices, consumer advocacy groups and better business organizations are stepping up, but often can’t keep up with the overwhelming demand.

“Any industry or company that holds onto consumers’ money for a service to be provided in the future is experiencing this problem with refunds,” said John Breyault, public policy spokesman for the National Consumers League, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group.

Breyault said the problem is most common with advance ticket purchases for flights, hotel rooms, concerts and sporting events. He said he realizes that many small businesses need the money to stay afloat, but argues that hanging onto money for a service that cannot be provided is not fair. “We think it’s really unconscionable at a time when consumers … are worried about whether they can pay their rent.”

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.