CHICAGO (CBS) — The U.S. government says passengers are owed a refund if an airline canceled their flight, so why is a South Side woman fighting to get her money back?

CBS 2’s Tim McNicholas learned it is a multibillion-dollar problem, but there are some possible solutions.

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Germany is a special place for Debbie Zeilner – a place of family, memories, and heritage. She used AARP’s Expedia-powered travel center to buy an $835 round-trip to the city of Hanover.

But then the pandemic hit, and Scandinavian Airlines canceled the flight.

“I would hope they would follow the golden rule of treat others like you’d like to be treated,” Zeilner said.

But Zeilner said she tried to get a refund and AARP told her to try the airline. And the airline told her to try AARP.

Despite her best efforts, she has only been offered a travel credit with the European airline.

“It’s very frustrating, especially since I lost my job on April 3,” Zeilner said. “I don’t know when we’ll be able to fly to Europe and I could use the money now.”

But the U.S. Department of Transportation said if the airline canceled the flight, the customer is owed a refund. And Zeilner isn’t alone.

Airlines are withholding billions in refunds, according to CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg.

“What the airlines are not fully disclosing is that they were just automatically offering you a credit or a voucher without sticking to the rules because they didn’t want to give up the money,” Greenberg said.

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McNicholas asked Greenberg – is there anybody policing this right now? Is there any kind of consequence that an airline can face for operating this way?

“The police department in this case is the U.S. Department of Transportation,” Greenberg said, “and they’re asleep.”

Within 120 days, you can try to dispute the charge with your bank. It is too late for Zeilner to do that.

Another option is to take airlines and travel agencies to small claims court.

“And those claims are being upheld,” Greenberg said.

Zeilner said she wishes she could go to Germany. But right now, her health insurance and other bills are more important.

Since this story originally aired, Expedia said it got in touch with the airline and a refund is being processed. As for what took so long, and why Ms. Zeilner didn’t receive a refund sooner, we’re still waiting on those answers.

We also reached out to AARP and Scandinavian Airlines for an explanation. We were waiting to hear back.

As for the bigger picture, the U.S. Department of Transportation sent a warning letter to the airlines in the spring and they have had their lawyers follow up with several airlines. They say they prefer to work with airlines to get them to comply, because that gets faster results than a penalty and lengthy investigation.

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Tim McNicholas