Minnesota cop sues United Airlines over canceled flight refund

United Airlines says it's offering customers "flexibility." Jacob Rudolph doesn't want flexibility, he wants his $1,521 back.

United Airlines says it's offering customers "flexibility." Jacob Rudolph doesn't want flexibility, he wants his $1,521 back. Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

In late January, some six weeks before Minnesota's first confirmed case of coronavirus, Jacob Rudolph and his family planned a vacation to beautiful Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. 

Rudolph booked three flights with United Airlines, at a total cost of $1,521, which he bought directly through United's website. The family was set to fly out of Minneapolis-St. Paul airport to the popular tourist destination in late March, and return this past weekend.

One global pandemic later, the Rudolphs' spring break plan was postponed indefinitely.

On March 16, the same day Gov. Tim Walz announced the imminent closure of Minnesota's "places of public amusement," Rudolph filed for a refund for the tickets. On March 31, Rudolph learned his refund claim was denied, and that instead he'd been offered a "rebooking or travel credit' to be used within the next year, according to a civil complaint filed in Illinois court yesterday.

The voucher offer's no good, according to Rudolph, who works as a detective with the Jordan Police Department. The lawsuit filed Monday says the city "declared a local state of emergency," and the department has ordered all employee vacations canceled. "In addition, [Rudolph] is prohibited from being in crowds, otherwise he will be subject to quarantine conditions, creating substantial hardship in a police department of 11 officers," according to the complaint. 

Rudolph joined the police force as a reserve officer in 2008, and was promoted to detective in 2014, according to a profile in the Jordan News.

Rudolph called United last week to complain, and was again told there'd be no refund. Instead he's suing the Chicago-based airline with the help of law firm Hagens Berman, which is seeking class-action status.

“So many airline ticketholders are in the same position as [Rudolph], left with no ticket, no refund, and no recourse," attorney Steve Berman said in a press release.

The lawsuit, which states that damages to the affected class of plaintiffs like Rudolph would exceed $5 million, accuses United of "deceptive conduct through its policy to refuse refunds, limiting and forcing customers into a rebooked flight or travel voucher instead of returning their money." 

United declined to comment directly on Rudolph's situation, though a spokesperson told the New York Post the airline had “implemented new policies to give our customers flexibility during these extraordinary times by allowing them to change their travel plans without a fee.”

On its website, United says passengers are eligible for refunds when a flight is "severely adjusted"—a term they don't define—or flights to the desired location are "suspended either due to government mandates or United schedule reductions related to COVID-19." Neither is true in the case of flights from Minneapolis to Hilton Head, which are still for sale on United's website.

As Bloomberg noted, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an "enforcement notice" stating foreign and domestic airlines must offer a refund "when the carrier cancels the passenger’s scheduled flight or makes a significant schedule change and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative." The federal agency is offering companies "an opportunity to become compliant" before taking action.