Airline and concert ticket refunds due to coronavirus frustrate customers
Chris Larkin and his wife spent over $1,000 on what was to be a memorable birthday present for their 12-year-old daughter: four tickets to see a Billie Eilish concert at the Wells Fargo Center.
Corn the coronavirus pandemic ruined the March 13 celebration, closing the Philadelphia arena and postponing the show indefinitely. The family instead spent the night sheltering in place at their Montgomery County home.
Then they got another unwanted birthday surprise.
Vivid Seats, the online marketplace where they bought the tickets, refused to refund them, Larkin said. The company told him he couldn’t get his money back because the show wasn’t officially canceled. It was technically postponed – until who knows when – and did not qualify for a refund.
“They should be ashamed of themselves, given what people are up against,” said Larkin, 47, of Gilbertsville. “It just tells you what kind of people are running these big companies.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Vivid Seats said Larkin’s tickets are still considered valid since event organizers did not cancel the concert. Customers will be given refund or credit options if the event status changes, the spokesperson said.
Consumers are struggling to get refunds as the pandemic disrupts flights, games, live events and vacations. The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office said it received 121 complaints about refunds and the public health emergency, mostly about the travel industry.
Businesses say they face an unprecedented influx of refund requests and uncertainty about rescheduling, with no end in view of the pandemic. Industries will lose billions of dollars just for the concert industry maybe lose $9 billion for the rest of the year, according to an estimate.
But consumer advocates say companies are withholding customers’ money at a time when millions of americans are out of work or with tight budgets.
“Companies are basically asking consumers who have purchased plane tickets or tickets to events or vacations to give them an interest-free loan,” said John Breyault of the National Consumers League, a Washington-based advocacy group. . “We think it’s unfair.”
The refund disputes have already sparked lawsuits and drawn the attention of government officials.
On Monday, a Lancaster man sued Southwest Airlines in federal court in Philadelphia, claiming the airline violated federal law and its own contract by not promptly refunding canceled flights. The complaint, which seeks class-action status, alleges the airline only offered customers the option of rebooking a new itinerary or receiving a “travel credit” for a future flight.
Southwest said customers can request a refund if a flight is canceled by the airline, and said it has made changes to its refund policy in light of the outbreak. “Southwest will review this complaint and defend our policies accordingly as our goal is always to take care of our customers, especially during these unprecedented times,” spokesman Brian Parrish said in a statement.
Under US Department of Transportation regulations, passengers are entitled to a refund when an airline cancels their flight. This month, the department issued an enforcement notice, reminding airlines that they still have “an obligation to reimburse passengers for canceled or significantly delayed flights”.
FlyersRights.org, a nonprofit that advocates for travelers, has operated a toll-free hotline since 2008. “This is the highest number of calls we’ve ever received,” said group president Paul Hudson. “It’s 90% on one subject: refunds.”
Many passengers are under government orders to stay home or avoid non-essential travel. “In this scenario, your rights are in a bit of a gray area,” Hudson said. If you choose not to travel, an airline may offer a voucher instead of a refund. The window for using the voucher can be as short as 90 days or as long as two years.
Ambler’s Pamela Biasi is a concert regular who has bought tickets for 13 shows in the coming weeks that have been postponed, canceled or are still in unlikely limbo, such as British rock band The Cult at the Met Philadelphia. For some, she got her money from Ticketmaster. For others, she patiently waits for new dates to be announced.
Biasi, however, is upset about her dealings with Ticketmaster for a show with ska-punk band Madness at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan. She’s usually the concert frontman for her friends, so she bought seven tickets for that one, with a $20.20 fee each added to $65 tickets.
The show has been rescheduled, from a Friday night next month to a Wednesday in May 2021, when neither she nor her friends can easily travel to New York. But when she contacted Ticketmaster to request a refund, she was denied.
“Obviously the sites are trying to keep the money, right?” Biasi said. “You just mean the show is postponed, and they’re saving the money to see if the bands will actually tour next year or even be booked at the same location.”
Ticketmaster took the heat last week for reportedly change the language of their refund policy to name only cancellation as a reason to get your money back, though the company said the policy remained the same despite the change. In a statement, Ticketmaster noted that it serves as a sales platform for event organizers and said its customers can set individual policies for their postponed or rescheduled events.
“Generally, event organizers have had the ability to offer refunds for virtually all postponed and rescheduled events,” the company said. “However, the unprecedented volume of more than 30,000 events affected to date, coupled with the continued uncertainty of rescheduling new dates pending clearance from regional governments, has led to event organizers needing more time to reschedule their events before deciding to offer refund options.”
Likewise, the Wells Fargo Center said refund policies are on a show-by-show basis and at the discretion of the artist and promoter. The arena is also home to the Philadelphia Flyers, who have asked fans to keep their tickets with the National Hockey League’s suspension of the season. The team allowed subscription holders to defer monthly payments.
So far, theater patrons requesting refunds appear to have had more success, while also using tickets as vouchers for future performances. And area theater directors have asked subscribers to donate the value of their tickets. Many have.
On April 9, theater directors met virtually Philadelphia Theater, a not-for-profit marketing umbrella organization. The frames of Lantern Theater Co., InterAct Co. Theater, and Exile Theater told Katherine Clark, Marketing Director of Theater Philadelphia, that 50% of their ticket holders have donated the value of their tickets.
“People were pretty happy with that percentage,” Clark said, adding that theater companies told him that 30% were asking for vouchers for future shows. “Theaters are always asking for donations because their need is so great.”
It wasn’t a difficult choice for Jane Lusk, a retired schoolteacher from Westtown Township. She and her husband immediately decided to donate to People’s Light in Malvern.
“For us, the money is gone, and they needed it more than we needed it,” she said, taking a break Tuesday from making coronavirus masks. “If we don’t support the arts now, it will be years before we have the arts again.”
Some customers, to their surprise, have managed to get their money back.
Carley Struve, who lives in the Vancouver area, convinced herself there was no way she would get a refund from Airbnb. When she first looked at the terms of the business, she saw that she would have to provide documentation on how her trip to Whistler – a ski resort in British Columbia, Canada – was affected by the pandemic, with specific dates. She didn’t think she would be able to produce a qualified document and thought she was being bamboozled by the company.
But then she scoured online, found information showing the resort was closed until further notice, and submitted a screenshot to the company. The money from his deposit has already returned to his credit card.
“Boom,” she said, “I got a refund, no problem at all.”
This article contains information from Jane M. Von Bergen and editors Dan DeLuca and Sam Carchidi.