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Tipline Investigation: Fighting the airlines for pandemic refunds

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Our News Channel Tipline investigation takes us back to the first days of the pandemic when everything seemed to stop or shutdown. 

A Santa Barbara man canceled his flight on Frontier Airlines touching off a long fight over a refund.

We discovered he is far from alone.

On March 18th, 2020, just three days after the pandemic lock down began, Jim Bechtel canceled his trip from Santa Barbara to Denver, Colorado.

“We always frankly, we cancel a lot and rebook, which is why I always buy the refundable tickets,” explained Bechtel.

"You think this is not going to be an issue. When did you start to think something’s wrong here?” asked News Channel reporter C.J. Ward.

“Well, unfortunately, it’s kind of embarrassing, but I didn’t realize for about two years. I just assumed I got the refund to my credit card. A dozen times in the past it's always worked like that," said Bechtel.

However, unlike past refunds, Bechtel said this time Frontier gave him a credit good for 90 days on another flight. 

Now, you may remember the country was on lock down for much longer than 90 days, So he couldn’t have used the credit anyway. Plus, Bechtel said he should have received a full refund.

He called Frontier.

“First, they said they can’t find any record of my flight. So they asked me for backup information. I provided them the backup information, including the confirmation number. And they then said, well, we need more information,” said Bechtel.

Bechtel said he went back and forth with Frontier providing all the information they requested. 

In one email, Frontier wrote back, ‘The credit was already expired.’ ‘we are unable to honor your request.’

“They didn’t deny that I bought the ticket. They didn’t deny that it was fully refundable. They didn’t deny anything except they said any further would go against our policy without any detailed explanation,” said Bechtel with frustration in his voice.

Bechtel said he tried, but no one at Frontier Airlines would explain exactly why they denied his claim. 

So, in January 2023 he filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation. A spokesperson from the DOT Office of Aviation Consumer Protection responded via email, ‘Based on information you have provided your complaint appears to fall under the Department's rules.' The DOT spokesperson also wrote that they would contact Frontier.

The email also described the ‘unprecedented’ number of complaints it’s received.

Bechtel said nothing happened. That’s when he called the News Channel Tipline for help.

“I feel a great deal of frustration that they would take advantage of consumers like that on something that’s straightforward. I mean they up sell their program, which they call The Works,” said Bechtel.

We looked over Bechtel’s documentation and it checked out.

We also did some research and discovered the Department of Transportation took enforcement action against six airlines in 2022 for not giving refunds to passengers during the pandemic.

The worst offender by far according to DOT?

You guessed it, Frontier Airlines. The feds forced Frontier to pay $222,000,000 to passengers who were owed a refund and the airline had to pay a $2,200,000 fine.

We contacted Frontier Airlines on Bechtel’s behalf. A spokesman agreed to look into the matter and within days Frontier called Bechtel to let him know it was sending him a check for the full refund, $367.10.

"Thank you for getting involved because I doubt, I know it wouldn't have happened fast and it might not have happened at all," said Bechtel.

We did try to get a comment from Frontier Airlines to explain why it didn't refund Bechtel's money when he first contacted them. We did not get an answer.

However, a spokesman did write to the News Channel regretting the issues Bechtel experienced.

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C.J. Ward

C.J. Ward is the evening anchor for KEYT News Channel 3 and the station’s lead investigative reporter. To learn more about C.J., click here


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