Coronavirus has sent the travel industry into a state of disarray as a global lockdown means airlines and travel companies have been forced to cancel planned travel for the future months. During what would normally be the start of the peak holiday season, travel operators are instead spending these months issuing refunds to woeful holidaymakers who have had holiday dreams shattered.
However, consumer champion Which? is claiming that some of the UK’s biggest airlines and holiday operators are “openly breaking the law by delaying refunds for cancelled trips or removing customer’s refund rights altogether.”
The consumer rights advocate suggests “up to £7 billion in payments made by UK customers – many who may also be struggling financially due to the impact of the pandemic – are affected, according to the travel industry’s own estimates.”
Which? has spoken with a number of British would-be holidaymakers who say they are still waiting after the date their refund was promised to them, or have been offered vouchers which they fear “which may prove to be worthless if holiday firms run into financial trouble.”
Amongst the big names mentioned in Which?’s investigation are holiday providers TUI and LoveHoliday, as well as airlines including British Airways and Ryanair.
As part of its research, Which? contacted 10 of the UK’s biggest holiday companies, including TUI and Jet2, and 10 of the UK’s biggest airlines, including British Airways and easyJet, to establish if they were offering customers cash refunds for cancelled travel plans, and if so, under what circumstances.
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Which? claims to have discovered that “none of the UK’s 10 biggest holiday companies is currently offering full refunds within the legal time frame, with some refusing to provide refunds altogether, and instead offering customers the choice of rebooking or accepting a voucher or credit note.”
Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said: “We have been inundated with messages from desperate travellers, some who are thousands of pounds out of pocket as a result of cancellations and have no idea if or when they’ll see their money again.”
Of the airlines mentioned in the report, it seems Irish-carrier Ryanair has come under the most fire for their decision to offer “refund credit notes” to passengers.
Despite Ryanair initially being praised for its decision to refund customers, Which? report seeing customer complaints that the airline is now asking them to accept a voucher valid for 12 months, or to join a refund queue and wait for their money back until the coronavirus outbreak has passed.
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Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis posted a tweet about this on Tuesday morning, saying: “Some telling me they replied specifically for a cash refund from @Ryanair are being sent vouchers which then say to apply for cash refunds.”
Which? also mentions reports of British Airways leaving customers with long waits to have their owed cash returned to them.
Express.co.uk has contacted Ryanair for comment on this claim.
The consumer rights advocate says passengers have raised complaints about “being unable to complete a refund form online, and instead being directed to a phone line where they are often unable to speak to someone due to high call volumes.”
Richard Lartey, 27, from London, told Which? he has been waiting over a month for his money to be returned for a cancelled BA flight, and of his frustration in trying to claim a refund from the airline.
Richard, who was due to fly to visit his pregnant partner in Austria, said: “The only option for a cash refund is to call up.
“Instead of holding customers in a queue the telephone system would simply hang up after playing a short message.”
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British assured Mr Lartey he would receive his money back, though he says he is still waiting.
Speaking to Express.co.uk, a British Airways spokesperson said: “If a customer’s flight has been cancelled, they should call us to discuss their options.
“They can rebook, refund or choose to take a voucher to fly at a later date. Refunds can be requested at any point up to 12 months after the start date of the journey.”
The airline adds that many customers have actually commended their refund process.
Though briefly mentioned in the report, Express.co.uk contacted easyJet to learn more about its refund policy.
A spokesperson said: “We do aim to process claims in 28 days, however because of the increased volumes due to the pandemic, it means that unfortunately, this could take longer.”
Customers can transfer onto an alternative flight free of charge or receive a refund value of their booking online should they want to travel in the future.
If not, the option for a full refund is also available through the easyJet contact centre.
The budget carrier also accepts requests in writing and through a new dedicated refund webform online.
Customers are reminded of the high volume of refund requests across the board for all carriers.
Meanwhile, holiday companies TUI and LoveHolidays were also named by customers.
TUI was shamed by Which? for not proactively offering refunds, though has since amended its policy.
Speaking to Express.co.uk the holiday provider said: “We have now contacted all 170,000 customer bookings impacted by cancellations until 15 May.
“We recognise that our initial approach of calling all customers was taking too long, so we’ve introduced a refund credit system – which includes an additional 20 percent booking incentive – so customers can manage any changes online to save time. The refund credit is valid until 31 October 2021.
“We have a full FAQ on our website to help customers and have a large team of customer advisors working from home to help.
“Customers can also call us to request a full refund and we are working through these as quickly as possible.”
LoveHolidays has similarly come under fire for offering credit notes to customers, and stating it “ would not be processing refunds any time soon.”
Express.co.uk has contacted LoveHolidays for more information on their refund process.
However, given the unprecedented nature of the current pandemic, and the vast amount of refunds travel operators must get through, ABTA says travel vouchers are crucial in helping companies stay afloat.
The travel trade association is calling on the UK government to rethink the current refund rules to allow companies to dish out credit notes as a “short-term alternative” to cash refunds.
At present, under EU law, travel firms must refund customers within 14 days if their holiday is cancelled.
However, given the vast number of cancellations, many travel firms face bankruptcy if they are to payout immediately.
ABTA has additionally warned that should travel firms collapse, taxpayers may be left footing a bill of up to £4.5 billion to refund customers.
A suggestion has been made to allow companies to issue credit notes which could be used for future travel plans, or for a cash refund in the future once companies are in better shape.
Yet Which? refutes this, stating the Package Travel Regulations are still in place and customers are entitled to a full refund within 14 days of the cancellation.
Which? says it “recognises the travel industry is under huge strain, and would encourage holidaymakers to rebook if it suits their circumstances – but the government must first provide clarity about how customer money will be protected in these circumstances.”
The consumer advocate has instead set out a 10-point plan for the government which it hopes will support the industry through this period, while also ensuring customers get the money they are owed.
Mr Boland adds: “We do not want to see the industry suffer further as a result of this outbreak, but it cannot be on consumers to prop up airlines and travel firms, especially when so many will be in difficult financial situations of their own.
“The government must urgently set out how it will support travel firms and airlines to ensure they can meet their legal obligations to refund customers for cancelled travel plans – and avoid permanent damage to trust and confidence in the travel industry.”