After the coronavirus outbreak, United Airlines cancels Setsuko Amann’s flight to Osaka, Japan. But then it charges her a $425 fee to redeposit her miles. Can the airline do that? 

Q: My wife, Setsuko, was scheduled to attend a conference in Hiroshima, Japan, in May. She had booked a ticket from San Francisco to Osaka with her United Airlines miles, so she did not have to pay anything at all. 

Due to the coronavirus, the conference was canceled. When she called United to attempt to cancel her flight they stated they would cancel her flight and refund her miles but charge her $425, which they have charged her credit card.  

Later, United sent us another email saying it will cancel flights for free. But United hasn’t refunded the $425 mileage redeposit fee.  

Maybe you can sort this out for her. Any help would be appreciated. I am a great fan of your column. — Regis Amann, Union City, California

A: Thank you. You’re right, there are a lot of people in a similar situation. United Airlines is not making any friends with its coronavirus refund policies.

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First, a little background. When coronavirus struck, airlines faced a tsunami of cancellations. Many of them did the right thing — they followed federal rules that required a full refund. But some didn’t. United tightened some of its refund policies and, instead of offering full refunds, only gave customers a ticket credit.

At the outset of the pandemic, I began to receive so many questions about United’s refund policies that I personally contacted the U.S. Department of Transportation. I forwarded some of the denied refund requests. DOT’s refund requirements are clear: If an airline cancels a flight, you get your money back. A week later, DOT issued an enforcement action reminding airlines to give their passengers a full refund.

Now, I realize there are some folks out there who think we should give the airlines a break and allow them to keep our money. Offering vouchers would give airlines much-needed cash to continue operating. I agree that a voucher might be an option, but it should be your choice — not theirs. Airlines need to follow the rules.

Your assertion that you didn’t have to pay for your award ticket on United is incorrect. You paid a lot for that ticket by giving United your loyalty over another, potentially cheaper airline, or by using an affinity credit card. But United’s actions are absurd. How can a “free” ticket cost $425 when United cancels the flight? That’s not loyalty — it’s a scam.

To answer your question, you should not have to pay a $425 fee to redeposit your miles, whether United cancels your flight or not. That’s what we like to call a “junk” fee and it’s wrong, now more than ever.

You could have reached out to one of the United Airlines executives contact I publish on my consumer advocacy site, Elliott.org. I list the names, numbers and email addresses for the people in charge. They need to hear from customers like you.

After I approached the DOT and it issued its enforcement action, United agreed to refund your wife’s $425. It shouldn’t have taken regulatory action to get that money back. I would reconsider your loyalty to United.