Chris Larkin and his wife spent more than $1,000 on what was supposed to be a memorable birthday gift for their 12-year-old daughter: four tickets to see a Billie Eilish concert at the Wells Fargo Center.
But the coronavirus pandemic ruined the March 13 celebration, closing the Philadelphia arena and postponing the show indefinitely. The family spent the night sheltering in place in their Montgomery County home, instead.
Then they received another unwelcomed birthday surprise.
Vivid Seats, the online marketplace where they bought the tickets, refused to give them a refund, 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 didn’t 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 run these big companies."
In a statement, a Vivid Seats spokesperson said Larkin’s tickets are still considered valid since event organizers haven’t canceled the concert. Customers will receive refund or credit options if the status of the event 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 has received 121 complaints about refunds and the public health emergency, mostly regarding the travel industry.
Companies say they are dealing with an unprecedented crush of refund requests and uncertainty over rescheduling, with no end in sight to the pandemic. The industries are set to lose billions of dollars, with the concert industry alone possibly losing $9 billion for the rest of the year, according to one estimate.
But consumer advocates say companies are withholding customers’ money at a time when millions of Americans are out of work or on tight budgets.
“Companies are essentially asking consumers who have purchased plane tickets or event tickets or vacations to extend them a no-interest loan," said John Breyault of the National Consumers League, a Washington-based advocacy group. “We think that’s unfair."
The refund disputes have already sparked lawsuits and gotten 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 when it failed to provide prompt refunds for canceled flights. The complaint, which seeks class-action status, alleges that the airline only offered customers the option to rebook a new route or receive “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 will defend our policies accordingly as our focus is always on taking care of our customers, especially during these unprecedented times,” spokesperson Brian Parrish said in a statement.
Under U.S. Department of Transportation regulations, passengers are entitled to refunds when an airline cancels their flight. This month, the department issued an enforcement notice, reminding airlines that they still have an “obligation to refund 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 most calls we’ve ever gotten,” said the group’s president, Paul Hudson. “It’s 90% on one subject: refunds.”
Many passengers are under government orders to stay home or avoid non-essential travel. “Under that scenario, your rights are in a little bit of a gray area,” Hudson said. If you opt not to travel, an airline might offer a voucher instead of a refund. The window to use the voucher can be as short as 90 days, or as long as two years.
Pamela Biasi, of Ambler, is a frequent concertgoer who purchased tickets to 13 shows in the coming weeks that have been postponed, canceled, or are still in an unlikely-to-happen limbo, such as British rock band the Cult at the Met Philadelphia. For some, she’s gotten her money from Ticketmaster. For others, she’s patiently waiting for new dates to be announced.
Biasi is irked, however, about her dealings with Ticketmaster for a show with the ska-punk band Madness at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan. She’s usually the concert-going ringleader for her friends, so she bought seven tickets for that one, with fees of $20.20 each tacked on 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 make it up to New York. But when she contacted Ticketmaster asking for a refund, she was refused.
“Obviously, the venues are trying to keep the cash, right?,” Biasi said. “You want to just either put that the show’s postponed, and they’re keeping the money to see if the bands are going to actually tour next year or even be booked at that same venue.”
Ticketmaster took heat last week for reportedly changing the language on its refund policy to list only cancellation as a reason to get your money back, though the company said the policy has remained the same despite the edit. In a statement, Ticketmaster noted that it serves as the sales platform for event organizers, and said that its clients can set individual policies for their postponed or rescheduled events.
“Typically, event organizers have had the flexibility to offer refunds for virtually all postponed and rescheduled events,” the company said. “However, the unprecedented volume of over 30,000 events impacted to date, coupled with continued uncertainty over setting new dates while awaiting clearance from regional governments, has led to event organizers needing additional time to reschedule their events before deciding to offer refund options.”
Similarly, 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, which have asked fans to hold on to their tickets with the National Hockey League season suspended. The team has allowed season ticket holders to defer monthly payments.
So far, theater patrons seeking refunds seem to have enjoyed more success, while also using tickets as vouchers for future performances. And theater leaders across the region have asked subscribers to donate the value of their tickets. Many have done so.
On April 9, theater leaders met virtually with Theatre Philadelphia, an umbrella marketing nonprofit. The executives of Lantern Theater Co., InterAct Theatre Co., and Theatre Exile told Katherine Clark, Theatre Philadelphia’s marketing director, that 50% of their ticket holders had donated the value of their tickets.
“People were pretty pleased with that percentage,” Clark said, adding that the theater companies told her 30% asked for vouchers for future shows. “Theaters are still asking for donations because their need is so great.”
It wasn’t a tough 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 back,” she said, taking a break Tuesday from making coronavirus masks. “If we don’t support the arts now, it’s going to be years before we have the arts again.”
Some customers, to their surprise, have succeeded in getting their money back.
Carley Struve, who lives in the Vancouver area, convinced herself that there was no way she’d get a refund from Airbnb. When she first looked at the company’s terms, she saw that she’d need to provide documentation of how her trip to Whistler — a ski resort area in British Columbia, Canada — was affected by the pandemic, with specific dates. She didn’t think she would be able to come up with a document that qualified, and figured she was getting the run-around from the company.
But then she poked around online, found information showing that the resort area was closed until further notice, and submitted a screenshot to the company. Her deposit money is already back on her credit card.
“Boom," she said, "got a refund, no problem at all.”