How to Avoid Getting Fleeced for Canceled Flights

Refundable fees on canceled airline tickets is a well-kept secret

Travelers have to bring a lot of nickels and dimes to the airport these days; add-on fees come at them from all directions, it seems. Checked bags, snacks, seat selection, even blankets will cost you on some airlines.

Those fees represent a small but growing source of income for the industry. It took in about $3 billion in extra fees in 2009. But what happens to the money paid when a ticket is canceled and those add-on services are never rendered?

David Orr, a former travel agent in Chicago for 25 years, says it should be refundable.

"The airport fees and Homeland security fees and all that is absolutely dependent on the use of the ticket, not the sale of the ticket. So that’s absolutely and always refundable," he said.

Orr points to a personal example: back in 2009, he booked a ticket to visit a sick uncle. When the uncle passed away before the planned trip, Orr said he canceled the flight. He said he never got back the approximately $44 in fees and surcharge, which he calls "taxation without representation."

A recent Government Accountability Office report bolsters his opinion, but also found massive confusion when it comes to the way in which airlines communicate -- or don’t communicate -- the availability of the refundable fees and surcharges.

According to testimony of GAO Director Gerald Dillingham: 

"Consumers with unused nonrefundable tickets are entitled to a full refund of the September 11th Security Fee, in accordance with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guidance, but few consumers request a refund because airlines are not required to proactively inform consumers of their right to a fee refund. According to Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), its applicable statutes and regulations authorize the refund of its customs and immigration inspection fees on unused nonrefundable tickets; however, CBP has not issued policy or guidance that clarifies this interpretation or whether airlines can or must refund fees if requested by consumers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) applicable statutes and regulations regarding its inspection fee are silent on whether the fee is refundable on unused nonrefundable tickets, according to the agency. “

In other words, the government’s own watchdog, the GAO, had trouble interpreting exactly which fees can be reimbursed.

Steve Lot, a spokesman for the airline industry, directed NBC Chicago to each individual airline for detailed instructions on refunds connected to unused fees and surcharges.

After NBC Chicago contacted United Airlines regarding Orr’s un-refunded $44 in taxes and fees, the airlines reimbursed him.

Refund Pages for Major Airlines

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