CONSUMERS’ group Which? has demanded action to make airlines speed up refunds for coronavirus cancelled flights.
It claims that people, including many expats in Spain, are ‘suffering serious financial and emotional distress as they struggle to claim refunds for flights and holidays cancelled due to coronavirus’.
The group has compiled a dossier of more than 14,000 refund complaints that it has now handed over to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) as part of its review of how airlines have handled cancellations and refunds in recent months.
They are collectively worth more than £5.6 million (€6.16 million) and detail the significant toll that delayed and denied refunds are taking on customers’ lives.
Under the Denied Boarding Regulations, if a UK or EU airline (or an airline flying from an airport in the UK or EU) cancels your flight, you should be refunded within seven days.
Package holidays are protected by the Package Travel Regulations, which entitle you to a full refund within 14 days if your holiday is cancelled. However, many of the biggest carriers have been openly breaking the law amid an unprecedented volume of cancellations caused by the pandemic, according to Which?
The consumers’ champion has received and submitted over 14,000 reports in just under six weeks, of which more than 12,600 have been analysed to establish trends in the data.
Those who reported to Which? that they had been denied a refund are out of pocket by an average of £446.40, (€490) and have collectively spent a total of 52,000 hours – almost six years – trying to chase their airline for the money they are due.
These reports provide a snapshot of the scale of the problem, with the industry’s own estimates from April this year suggesting that up to £7 billion (€7.7 billion) of consumers’ money is owed in refunds.
The most reported airline was Ryanair, accounting for four in 10 (44%) of the complaints made to Which?. Half of those people (50%) reported spending more than five hours of their time trying to contact the airline for a refund.
Easyjet was the next most complained about airline, accounting for one in seven (14%) complaints. Three in 10 (29%) told Which? they are yet to receive a response from the airline with regards to a refund.
Virgin Atlantic was the third most complained about, with 7% of complaints saying the customer was waiting for a refund from the airline. Three in 10 (29%) customers who reported Virgin Atlantic to Which? told the consumer champion they had spent over five hours trying to claim a refund, while a further three in 10 (31%) had spent over 10 hours.
Tui and Etihad customers spent the most time chasing a refund, with four in 10 (both Tui and Etihad – 39%) spending over 10 hours contacting their airline to ask for their money back.
Additionally, nearly half (45%) of Tui customers who made a report to Which? told the consumer champion they had not received a response from the company at the time of submitting their report.
Airlines have cited huge volumes of refunds and limited staff available to process them as an explanation for the delays in refunding customers, however a number of airlines have done a significantly better job of returning money to their customers in a shorter time frame while operating under similar circumstances.
A Which? survey of airline customers in May who had had flights cancelled found that four in 10 (39%) BA customers surveyed had received their money back within the legal time frame, while three in 10 (29%) Jet2 customers who responded were refunded within the seven day window. This was in comparison to only 5% of Ryanair customers telling Which? they received a refund within the legal time frame, and one in seven (14%) Easyjet customers.
Which? also invited people to report the impact that being denied a refund on their lives has had, as the pandemic has left hundreds of thousands of households in difficult financial circumstances and worried about their health and that of their loved ones.
Lynn Fox, 42, was made redundant in March after her employer went into administration, before her self-employed husband was left without work due to the pandemic. They had remortgaged their house in January to pay for a once-in-a-lifetime holiday with Virgin Holidays to Florida costing £6,700. But when Virgin cancelled the holiday, Lynn was unable to contact the company and requests for a refund went unanswered.
Both Lynn and her husband have been relying on Universal Credit and told Which? that without the money they were owed, they feared they may struggle to pay their mortgage for the next year. However, after Which? contacted Virgin about her story, she received an email saying her refund is now being processed.
Which? also heard from Laura McAdam, 26, who needed to fly back to her family home after losing her job and worrying about becoming homeless. Laura told Which? she suffers from severe depression and anxiety, and that she eventually stopped chasing Easyjet after spending approximately 12 hours trying to get a refund, as the distress was taking a toll on her on top of everything else going on in her life.
Laura said Easyjet only gave her the option of rebooking or accepting a credit note, and that all her emails to the airline went ignored. She told Which? the £120 – which she is still waiting to be refunded – would make a huge difference to her given how little money she has to live on.
However, after being contacted by Which?, Easyjet said it has contacted Laura to apologise for the inconvenience caused and asked for her refund to be processed immediately.
Which? believes the stories it has already submitted clearly make the case for tough action against airlines that continue to ‘flout the law’. But as international travel begins to resume from the UK, Which? is calling on people to continue to submit their complaints to pass on to the CAA to ensure the regulator does not let travel companies return to normal with no consequences for their actions over this period.
Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said: “We are hearing from thousands of passengers who are still waiting for refunds months after flights and holidays were cancelled. These people are often in desperate circumstances of their own and have told us the stress of being left out of pocket has significantly impacted on their emotional well-being and their finances.
“As a first step to restoring lost trust in the travel industry, it’s important that lawbreaking companies are not let off the hook for their actions during this period. The regulator must act swiftly on this evidence and take strong action against those airlines that have repeatedly been exposed for flouting the rules.”
A Ryanair spokesperson said: “This is yet another baseless survey of two men and a dog from Which?.
“Ryanair has already processed over €500 milllion in refunds and vouchers since mid-March, which is over 40% of Ryanair’s total backlog of COVID cancellations in March, April, May & June.
“The process time for cash refunds is taking longer due to unprecedented volumes and the fact that we have fewer staff available due to social distancing measures.”
An easyJet spokesperson said: “As the UK’s largest airline, easyJet carries more passengers than other airlines which means we have also had to make more cancellations during this period.
“Throughout this COVID period, we’ve continued to offer our customers a refund option, in addition to free changes or a voucher. We’ve also ensured that the refund request is easy and straightforward, via a dedicated refund webform online. All of these entitlements can be accessed through our online COVID Help Hub.
“We are processing refunds for customers and aim to do so in less than 28 days. But in these unprecedented times, the volume of cancellations compounded by local lockdown restrictions leading to reduced staffing levels in our customer contact centres, means that processing of refunds is taking longer than usual. To help our customers, we have invested extra resources into the call centre to help reduce our queue as quickly as possible.”