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EDITORIAL

As airlines begin their descent back to normalcy, the upright position would be to return our money

Customers are angry about their inability to get their money back for travel plans they cancelled because of the pandemic. And who can blame them?

A plane taking off from Logan Airport as seen from Winthrop. US airline customers hold a collective $10 billion in unused credits after the pandemic upended their travel plans for more than a year.
A plane taking off from Logan Airport as seen from Winthrop. US airline customers hold a collective $10 billion in unused credits after the pandemic upended their travel plans for more than a year.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

When the pandemic clobbered the US airline industry, American taxpayers stepped up to help: Congress has approved multiple bailouts, including a recent $15 billion aid package to help airlines weather this crisis. But the airline industry has been in no hurry to return the favor. In fact, even amid a pandemic that has upended many families’ travel plans and budgets, carriers have been far too reluctant to change their restrictive refund policies.

Indeed, the skies have not been so friendly to the pocketbooks of airline customers, who hold a collective $10 billion in unused credits after the pandemic upended their travel plans for more than a year.

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Would-be passengers are not happy about it. The number of consumer complaints against US airline companies skyrocketed by 400 percent in 2020, according to a Wichita State University Airline Quality Rating report. Most of those objections were about customers’ inability to get their money back for their canceled travel plans. And who can blame them?

Now some of the travel credits these would-be travelers hold are approaching their expiration dates, and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and other lawmakers are demanding answers from the carriers about how they plan to make their passengers whole, and calling for customers to get cash refunds or credits that last indefinitely.

But Markey and his colleagues need to go a step further: Lawmakers must demand that unless airlines provide non-expiring credits or cash refunds to every passenger who was forced to cancel travel plans, they must give back their share of the roughly $50 billion in grants and loans they received in federal emergency COVID stimulus funds. Taxpayers should not be expected to underwrite the airline industry’s refusal to protect its own consumers.

Refunding customers in cash could have been included among the assurances passenger carriers were required to make as a condition for getting and keeping the federal relief. That it was not is the fault of lawmakers, but they should correct that mistake.

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Markey and Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and other lawmakers have been pressing airlines for a year to offer cash refunds to flyers, and even filed legislation last congressional session that would have required them to do so.

“Americans need cash in their pockets to pay for food, housing, and prescriptions during this emergency,” Markey and Blumenthal wrote in letters to 10 US airline carriers. “It is unconscionable that airlines are largely refusing to return customers’ money even as the industry sits on more than $10 billion in unused travel credits.”

While these efforts by lawmakers are laudable, they lack sufficient incentive needed to press airlines to act.

Airline CEOs flocked to Washington last year to implore the White House and lawmakers to provide carriers with COVID stimulus relief. If they want to keep that money, they need to give customers’ their money back.

Providing airlines, and the hundreds of thousands of airline employees, a lifeline during the pandemic was important. It saved jobs and livelihoods, staving off furloughs to help airline workers stay above water until enough Americans are vaccinated and travel resumes in earnest.

But it was also a big boon for executives and stockholders, as the bailout buoyed airline stocks. In May 2020, Delta Airlines stocks dipped below $20 per share. This week they hover near $45 per share – meaning the biggest beneficiaries of the government’s stimulus funds are investors.

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And though CEOs of major US airlines took pay cuts, some, like Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian, were still able to take in stock options and incentives before the executive compensation limits that were a condition of the federal stimulus funds took effect, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Bastian’s total compensation during the pandemic year? $13.1 million.

Some carriers, including Delta, American Airlines, and United Airlines, have already extended the expiration date credits for COVID-related cancellations into 2022. American and United airlines have also begun paying back some of the stimulus money they received.

But airlines can do more. As the nation recovers from the economic fallout of the pandemic, taxpayers who bought plane tickets they have been unable to use deserve cash in their pockets too. Lawmakers should tell the airlines to pony up.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.