The United States Department of Transportation has ordered that airline customers whose flights have been canceled during the COVID-19 outbreak are entitled to a full refund.

The department’s decision comes amid a growing number of complaints and inquiries from ticketed passengers, including many with non-refundable tickets, who say they have been denied refunds for flights that were canceled or significantly delayed.

“Airlines have long provided such refunds, including during periods when air travel has been disrupted on a large scale, such as the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and presidentially declared natural disasters,” a notice from DOT to airline companies read.   “Although the COVID-19 public health emergency has had an unprecedented impact on air travel, the airlines’ obligation to refund passengers for canceled or significantly delayed flights remains unchanged.”

In many of these cases, passengers told DOT that the carrier informed them that they would receive vouchers or credits for future travel. The problem with that, according to DOT officials is that many airlines are dramatically reducing their travel schedules in the wake of the pandemic.  As a result,  passengers are left with canceled or significantly delayed flights, vouchers, and credits for future travel that are not readily usable. 

“Carriers have a longstanding obligation to provide a prompt refund to a ticketed passenger when the carrier cancels the passenger’s flight or makes a significant change in the flight schedule and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier,” the DOT released in a statement. “The longstanding obligation of carriers to provide refunds for flights that carriers cancel or significantly delay does not cease when the flight disruptions are outside of the carrier’s control.”

The directive applies to domestic and foreign airlines for flights to, within, or from the U.S.

The European Union recently issued a similar statement, saying EU law requires reimbursements to be made within seven days. Airlines in the EU can only issue a voucher if the customer agrees.