Frontier Airlines ordered to pay $222 million in refunds and a $2.2 million penalty

Photo (c) Evgen Prozhyrko - Getty Images

Travel agencies like Orbitz could hear from the DOT next

Anyone who’s had a flight canceled or significantly changed in the last year or so is due a refund. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) said it’s had enough of airlines not giving mistreated passengers their due, fining Frontier Airlines and five foreign carriers -- Air India, TAP Portugal, Aeromexico, El Al, Avianca -- $7.2 million in penalties and forcing those six to cough up $600 million in refunds to those scorned fliers.

When the DOT mandated that airlines must offer refunds over vouchers for canceled flights during COVID-19 outbreak, Frontier played the victim card and refused, taking the issue to court where a Federal judge let the company off the hook.

“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 on behalf of American travelers and get passengers their money back,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “A flight cancellation is frustrating enough, and you shouldn’t also have to haggle or wait months to get your refund.” 

With those fines, the department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection has assessed $8.1 million in civil penalties in 2022, the largest amount ever issued in a single year by that office. 

So, will this refund refusal stop now?

Under U.S. law, airlines and ticket agents are legally obligated to refund anyone holding a ticket if the airline cancels or significantly changes a flight to, from, and within the United States, if the passenger does not wish to accept the alternative offer, which is usually a voucher. The DOT says it is unlawful for an airline to refuse refunds and instead provide vouchers to such consumers.  

Locking down price transparency – especially for those fees airlines have for nearly everything – is the next major move consumers can expect from the DOT. 

Under a recently proposed rule, airlines and travel search websites, like Expedia and Travelocity, would have to make it clear as day upfront any fees charged to sit with your child, for changing or canceling your flight, and for checked or carry-on baggage. 

ConsumerAffairs reviewers have had as much of this fee business as they can take. In the last year, nearly 90 consumers have written concerns about Frontier Airlines and its refund policies, and another 30 plus about the same dissatisfaction with Orbitz.

“They have a policy that states they do not give refunds on flights booked within 7 days,” Jon of Los Angeles, wrote. “I booked through Orbitz and Orbitz did not notify me of this.”

It’s about time says consumer watchdog

“It’s great that the DOT is finally demanding some accountability, but  $600 million is a drop in the bucket. Airlines owe some $10 billion in refunds going back to the beginning of the pandemic,” U.S. PIRG Consumer Watchdog Teresa Murray said in response.

“Furthermore, only one U.S.-based airline is in this group. Domestic carriers accepted billions of dollars in taxpayer money to stay afloat during the early months of the pandemic. As travelers know all too well, the industry used the money to offer employees lucrative buyouts and retirement packages, leaving their operations understaffed." 

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