Coronavirus travel: Airlines ‘broke the law for withholding refunds’

Airlines accused of ‘getting a slap on the wrist after denying holidaymakers millions of pounds in refunds’

  • Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has named and shamed easyJet, Ryanair & Virgin 
  • They revealed some customers have waited four months for their money back
  • Under EU law, airlines are supposed to offer customers a refund for cancelled flights within seven days

Airlines have been accused of getting away ‘with a slap on the wrist’ after brazenly breaking the law for months and denying holidaymakers millions of pounds in refunds.

The aviation watchdog has named and shamed easyJet, Virgin Atlantic and Ryanair as being among the worst airlines for cash refund delays.

In some cases, passengers have been forced to wait as long as four months for their money back, an investigation by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) revealed yesterday.

Under EU law, airlines are supposed to offer customers a refund for cancelled flights within seven days.

Yet the long-awaited review laid bare how major airlines had routinely refused to provide cash refunds and offered only vouchers or the option to rebook.

The aviation watchdog has named and shamed easyJet, Virgin Atlantic and Ryanair as being among the worst airlines for cash refund delays. Pictured: A man walks outside a deserted Manchester Airport yesterday

The aviation watchdog has named and shamed easyJet, Virgin Atlantic and Ryanair as being among the worst airlines for cash refund delays. Pictured: A man walks outside a deserted Manchester Airport yesterday

Some had made it unduly difficult for passengers to contact them and request a refund. Others had failed to be clear about the customer’s legal right to a cash refund.

But despite the serious failings, the CAA stopped short of launching the legal action it had threatened in May. Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said: ‘The regulator is failing the consumers it is supposed to protect.

‘The reality is that people are still owed millions of pounds in refunds, are facing financial and emotional turmoil, and continue to be fobbed off by a number of airlines who have been brazenly breaking the law for months. These airlines will now feel they can continue to behave terribly, having faced no penalty or sanction.

‘It is obvious that the CAA does not have the right tools to take effective action against airlines that show disregard towards passengers and the law. The Government must use this opportunity to bring in much-needed reforms.’

The regulator launched a review of 18 airlines in May following an outcry over refund delays.

Only three airlines – American Airlines, Jet2 and United Airlines – were found to be providing refunds promptly. Others including Aer Lingus, easyJet, Emirates, Ryanair, Tui and Virgin Atlantic were said to have ‘sizeable’ backlogs of refund requests.

At its worst, Virgin Atlantic was taking as long as 120 days to process claims, the regulator said.

The airline has said it expected all claims made in August to be paid within 80 days, claims in September within 60 days and claims in October within 30 days.

EasyJet and Emirates were found to be taking up to 90 days to process refunds, while Ryanair customers were waiting ten weeks or longer. EasyJet told the watchdog it has invested in extra staff and extended its call centre hours to meet a new target of 30 days. Emirates aims to reduce its wait time to 30 days by September.

On July 3, Ryanair confirmed that 90 per cent of its backlog would be cleared by the end of today. But experts have slammed the budget airline for continuing to wriggle out of refund obligations by refusing to cancel flights to Spain despite ministers advising against all but essential travel.

Tui had automatically issued customers with a credit note for the value of the flight. Passengers had to wait 28 days from receiving it to claim a cash refund, which would take a further 28 days to be processed.

Ryanair planes are seen at Dublin Airport, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), Dublin, Ireland, May 1, 2020

Ryanair planes are seen at Dublin Airport, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), Dublin, Ireland, May 1, 2020

Tui has now stopped doing this and is offering a cash refund which will be paid within 14 days, on average.

British Airways was found to have a relatively small backlog of refund requests, with most refunds paid within about 30 days.

However, the CAA said passengers had been unable to contact the airline to request a refund, with calls terminated following a recorded message. British Airways told the watchdog it had made changes to ensure calls were no longer cut off.

Martyn James, of complaints website Resolver, said: ‘The CAA report confirms what the public have known for a long time – that many airlines failed in their duty of care to their customers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet they have been allowed to get away with just a slap on the wrist.

‘The pandemic has demonstrated that many industries – and travel in particular – need the regulatory bodies to have far greater powers to enforce the law and good practice. And a single, empowered ombudsman for the whole industry is also desperately needed.’

CAA chief executive Richard Moriarty said: ‘Although we have taken into account the serious operational challenges many airlines have faced, we have been clear that customers cannot be let down, and that airlines must pay refunds as soon as possible.

‘There is still work to do. Should any airline fall short of the commitments they have made, we will not hesitate to take further action.’

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