People are suffering serious financial and emotional distress as they struggle to claim refunds for flights and holidays cancelled due to coronavirus, a damning dossier of more than 14,000 refund complaints compiled by Which? reveals.
The complaints – which have been passed onto the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) as part of its review of how airlines have handled cancellations and refunds in recent months – are collectively worth more than £5.6 million and detail the significant toll that delayed and denied refunds are taking on customers’ lives.
The findings come as Which?’s campaign, ‘Refund Us. Reform Travel.’, demands that airlines urgently refund any passengers still owed money for cancelled flights and holidays.
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.
Since asking affected passengers to report their airline to the CAA through its online tool on 22 May, the consumer champion has received and submitted over 14,000 reports in just under six weeks, of which over 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, and have collectively spent a total of 52,000 hours – almost six years – trying to chase their airline for the money they are due.
Collectively, the 12,602 people whose reports were analysed told Which? they were owed £5.63 million in refunds. 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 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?, with passengers reporting a combined total of £1.15 million owed. Half of those (50%) reported spending more than five hours of their time trying to contact the airline for a refund.
Despite being the third largest operator flying out of the UK, behind EasyJet and British Airways, Ryanair owes over £400,000 more than the two market leading airlines, with its £1.15 million total equating to one in every five pounds that was reported to Which?.
Easyjet was the next most complained about airline, accounting for one in seven (14%) complaints. Customers told Which? they were collectively owed more than £663,000 in refunds, with three in 10 (29%) telling Which? they are yet to receive a response from the airline with regards to a refund.
Many airline customers who are struggling to obtain refunds may well turn to their insurers to recoup the cost of the tickets, which adds a further level of admin and stress to the process. Insurers are likely to want to see definite proof of a loss before accepting claims – indeed, why should the travel insurance sector pick up the tab that airlines are legally obliged to pay?
Virgin Atlantic was the third most complained about, with seven per cent of complaints saying the customer was waiting for a refund from the airline. Over £915,000 is collectively owed to Virgin Atlantic customers who complained to Which?, with the average refund amounting to £1,031.61. 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 five per cent 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.
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.
The CAA must now take urgent enforcement action against airlines that are failing to pay refunds, rather than continuing to let them get away with illegally withholding customers’ money given the huge financial and emotional toll it is having on thousands of people’s lives.
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 wellbeing 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.”