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Blumenthal Demands Airlines Provide Cash for Cancelled Flights During the Pandemic

Pushes for federal mandate to require facemasks for all individuals at airports and on airplanes

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) pressed Airlines for America President & CEO Nick Calio on why airlines are preventing consumers from receiving cash refunds for flights cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports indicate that airlines are misleading consumers seeking refunds, intentionally steering them toward vouchers. Blumenthal pointed out that these practices are especially brazen given the airline industry received more than $25 billion in taxpayer coronavirus relief funding.

“[W]hen you come to us and ask for more assistance, my mind goes back to the bailout we’ve just given you,” Blumenthal said to Calio. “More than $25 billion in taxpayer money and now in effect you are continuing to mislead and deceive those taxpayers who have given you that bailout. In effect, you are, forgive me, screwing the very taxpayers whose money is going into your pockets. And you’re giving basically no relief if those passengers on their own have to cancel flights out of the concern for public health.”

Blumenthal noted the airline industry’s past anti-consumer behavior, including “a history of bumping passengers, multiplying fees, shrinking seats, taking tax breaks and using them for stock buybacks and executive compensation.” The Senator told Calio the only way for the industry to get passengers back in seats is to regain consumers’ “trust and credibility,” emphasizing that dishonest refund practices will set them back even further.

In March, Blumenthal and his colleagues sent letters to each of the major domestic airlines, urging them to issue full cash refunds to all customers who cancel their flights during the COVID-19 crisis, and to American citizens who encounter flight cancellations while stranded in countries that implemented travel restrictions. The press release and letters can be found here. The Senators subsequently released findings based on the airlines’ responses, estimating that they could be “holding onto over $10 billion of hard-earned money from American travelers.” The press release and response letters from airlines can be found here.

Blumenthal also emphasized the need for a mandate requiring all individuals at airports and on airplanes to wear facemasks, noting this would be in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. Wearing facemasks at airports and on airplanes is currently voluntary.

Blumenthal questioned American Association of Airport Executives President & CEO Todd Hauptli and Calio on their views about such a mandate. Hauptli replied, saying “there needs to be the very groups that you identified, CDC and others, HHS, working together to come up with federal guidelines to make sure we have a consistent approach throughout the travel experience no matter which airline or which airport you travel through.”

Calio said it’s the industry’s current policy, but noted that “[t]here’s a lot of practical questions that arrive from that and when you have a situation where someone gets to the airport, goes through security without a mask and then gets to the gate and has to put a mask on, it begs the question.”

Blumenthal replied, saying “I would think that your position on requiring them would be greatly strengthened if the flight attendants or whoever’s at the gate could say it’s the law, it’s not just our policy it’s the law. Correct?” Calio agreed, replying “Yes, sir.”

In April, Blumenthal and U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA) sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, urging the agencies to immediately issue a rule requiring face masks for all individuals engaged in air travel during the coronavirus pandemic. The press release and letter are available here.

The videos from the hearing are available here and here.