By Nathalie Voit

The Department of Transportation (DOT) is proposing new mandates for consumers seeking airline ticket refunds, according to a press release posted on the agency’s website on August 3.

The DOT said the proposed rulemaking follows a surge in travel service complaints since early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic upended traditional air travel.

The announcement states that although consumers are entitled to a refund by law when an airline cancels or significantly changes a passenger’s flight, the terms “significant” change and “cancellation” have not been previously defined by the agency. This has resulted in confusion among airline carriers about when airlines are required to dole out passenger refunds in the event of a canceled or delayed flight.

Airlines’ obligations to consumers for canceled or postponed flights have become even murkier since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, many customers attempted to cancel or modify their flights for pandemic-related issues like personal health.

The proposed new rules would codify the department’s longstanding requirements for air carriers and define–for the first time–what the terms “cancellation” and “significant change” actually mean. Based on the announcement, the department suggested that the latter refer to all flights whose departure or arrival time is delayed by three or more hours for a domestic flight or six or more hours for an international flight. Passengers would also be entitled to a refund if a connection is added or if the routing is modified, as well as if a change in aircraft causes a “significant downgrade” in the air travel experience or amenities available onboard the flight.

“When Americans buy an airline ticket, they should get to their destination safely, reliably, and affordably,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in Wednesday’s announcement. “This new proposed rule would protect the rights of travelers and help ensure they get the timely refunds they deserve from the airlines.”

The proposed guidance will be subject to 90 days of public comment.