Can you get your money back if you opt out of the TSA’s assault on your freedom? Yes, but airlines don’t want to admit that. (That’s nothing new.) You may have to put up a fight.
Here’s what’s happening, and what you can do:
With National Opt-Out Day coming up, travel journalist Christopher Elliott contacted several airlines to see how they would handle requests for refunds from ticketed passengers who aren’t allowed to fly because they opt out of being x-rayed or groped.
Disturbingly, several airlines (American, Southwest, United/Continental, and US Airways) told Elliott that they would not give refunds to such passengers holding nonrefundable tickets.
Airlines can’t just make up new rules governing tickets and refunds after tickets are issued. Those rules are published in airlines’ tariffs and conditions of carriage, as filed with the Department of Transportation.
Almost all airlines’ conditions of carriage provide that, if an airline refuses to transport you, you are entitled to a full and unconditional “involuntary refund” of all fares, fees, and charges, even if the fare at which your ticket was issued is otherwise completely nonrefundable.
American Airlines, for example, told Elliott:
“Our refund rules that are in place now, apply,” says a spokeswoman. “If the customer has a refundable ticket, then we will refund. If the customer has a non-refundable ticket, then we can offer a voucher.”
But American’s actual rules are contained in their conditions of carriage, as follows:
In the event the refund is required because of American’s failure to operate on schedule or refusal to transport, the following refund will be made directly to you –
- If the ticket is totally unused, the full amount paid (with no service charge or refund penalty), or
- If the ticket is partially used, the applicable fare for the unused segment(s).
If American or another airline with similar terms in its contractual conditions of carriage refuses to give you a full and unconditional refund (not merely a voucher), they are liable to you for damages if you sue them, and liable to enforcement action and fine by the Department of Transportation.
So what’s the best strategy if you already have a ticket and want to opt out of virtual strip-search and groping?
First, consult the provisions of the airline’s “Conditions of Carriage” governing refusal to transport and involuntary refunds. Most airlines’ terms are essentially identical to American’s, but others may be different. All airlines are required by Federal law and DOT regulations to have their full tariff and conditions of carriage available for inspection at all ticket counters, but they often don’t. So it might be helpful to print out the relevant portions and bring them with you to the airport.
Second, you have to actually show up at the airport and present yourself for check-in on time. No-shows are not entitled to any refund.
Third, you should try to document that the airline (not the TSA or TSA contractors) refused to transport you. If you check in with the airline, online or at the airport, and then refuse to be x-rayed or groped, you’ll probably get the runaround: The airline will tell you that they aren’t responsible for the actions of the TSA, or that they were “just following orders” from the TSA. The TSA will claim that it was up to the airline whether to transport you.
So the best strategy may be not to check in or get a boarding pass online. Instead, present yourself at the airline’s check-in counter, and tell them that you decline to show ID or “consent” to a virtual strip-search or groping. When they say, “If you don’t show ID, you can’t fly,” demand an immediate, full, and unconditional refund.
If they refuse to give you a refund on the spot, demand that they give you written confirmation that:
- You presented yourself for check-in on time;
- The airline refused to transport you;
- You requested a refund; and
- The airline refused to give you a refund.
Tell them you need all this to document your eligibility for refund. Don’t leave the counter without either a full refund or a written statement to this effect, on airline letterhead, legibly signed (preferably by the airline’s “Station Manager” for that airport). Don’t be put off by being told that “all the information is in the computer” and that you will have to follow up later.
Say something like, “I insist on either a full and immediate refund, or a letter signed by the station manager coinfirming that I presented myself for check-in on time, that you refused to transport me because I wouldn’t show ID or ‘consent’ to ‘screening’, that I requested a refund, and that you have refused to provide me with a full refund. I need this to document my eligibility for a refund.”
If you like, you could add, “and the complaint I’ll be making against you to the Department of Transportation for refusing to comply with your conditions of carriage.”
Once you have that documentation in hand, you can follow up with a lawsuit against the airline for damages, and/or a complaint to the DOT requesting that they open a formal investigation and fine the airline for violating DOT regulations by failing to act in accordance with their published and filed conditions of carriage.