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Democratic Senators Urge Airlines to Give Customers Cash Refunds

— April 1, 2020

Airlines have already received billions in bailout money, even as ordinary Americans struggle to apply for unemployment benefits.

A group of influential Democratic senators are asking U.S. airlines to issue full cash refunds to customers who can no longer travel due to coronavirus.

Reuters reports that the senators included in the initiative are Ed Markey, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Richard Blumenthal, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Bob Casey. Collectively, the urged the chief executives of 11 major airlines to not only offer full refunds but to play a more proactive role in returning U.S. citizens stranded overseas.

“We believe your company has a moral responsibility to provide real refunds, not travel vouchers, to consumers, and to support State Department efforts to repatriate any American citizens trying to come home,” the senators wrote.

According to Reuters, most airlines are temporarily waiving coronavirus-related change and cancellation fees. However, few have enacted policies that’d give customers full refunds.

And the senators say that’s a problem—with so many Americans now unemployed or laid off for the foreseeable future, finances are becoming increasingly difficult to manage.

“Americans need money now to pay for basic necessities, not temporary credits towards future travel,” the lawmakers wrote.

Furthermore, the senators claim that airlines are somewhat beholden to the government—especially those that applied for and accepted billions of dollars in aid. Altogether, struggling airlines were awarded $25 billion in cash grants, plus a similar amount in loans.

“The airline industry got $25 billion to keep workers on payroll—but they’re not the only ones hurting for money right now,” Sen. Warren (D-MA) wrote on Twitter. “I want airlines to provide customers cash refunds, not just travel vouchers, for canceled flights.”

But airlines—perhaps unsurprisingly—have signaled their unwillingness to cooperate. American Airlines Group Inc., for instance, stood by its current policies, claiming that the “comprehensive travel waivers we’ve put in place are designed to meet the full range of our customers’ needs.”

Reuters notes that Southwest and Delta Air Lines, both of which received copies of the senators’ letter, have yet to provide the outlet comment.

United Airlines said it would respond in the coming days.

(United, too, was extensively criticized for revising its cancelation and change policies as the extent of the coronavirus crisis became clear)

The senators have also asked contacted airlines to disclose “the total value of all travel vouchers and credits you have issued during the coronavirus pandemic.” They also want numbers on exactly how many flights have been canceled because of COVID.

One way or another, the airline bailout remains controversial. At the end of March, Business Insider published a brief article alleging that it was easier for airlines to receive grants and loans than it is for ordinary Americans to obtain unemployment benefits.

Airline aid forms—intended to subsidize payroll and avoid industry lay-offs—“[ask] for past employment levels, salary amounts paid, and information for the bank account they’d like the aid to be sent.”

“The simplicity of the form,” Business Insider writes, “and the speed with which it was published after the stimulus went into effect contrasts with the arduous processes and bureaucracy that individuals face when applying for aid like state unemployment or food-stamp benefits.”

The airlines bailout was part of the same federal act which expands unemployment benefits amidst the coronavirus pandemic. But as airlines are already positioned to receive grants, many state-level unemployment agencies have either struggled to implement the act’s provisions for workers, or haven’t implemented them at all.


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