Airlines failing on commitments to regulator about time taken to process refunds

Ryanair, Virgin Atlantic and Tui are failing to refund passengers in agreed timeframes, breaching recent commitments to the regulator that they would speed up their refund process.

Which? has seen evidence that the airlines are reneging on promises they made to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) about how they would improve their refund processes, including from some passengers who have been left out of pocket since March.

The findings come after the CAA reviewed airlines’ behaviour and identified several carriers that weren’t paying refunds ‘sufficiently quickly’, but opted not to take enforcement action after receiving commitments from the airlines to improve their performance.

However, Which? found that Ryanair, Tui and Virgin – all identified by the CAA as not processing refunds fast enough – are falling short of the promises they made to the regulator, prompting concerns from Which? that the regulator’s enforcement powers may not be fit for purpose.

The CAA told Ryanair it wasn’t satisfied that it was taking 10 weeks or longer to process refunds, and that airlines offering vouchers should also be offering passengers the choice of a cash refund. Following the regulator’s review, Ryanair published a commitment on its website that all refund requests up to the end of May would be cleared by 31 July.

But Which? has heard from Ryanair passengers who are still waiting for refunds from March, and who are still trying to get cash refunds after they were initially sent vouchers despite requesting cash refunds.

Virgin Atlantic told the CAA its maximum waiting time for refunds is 120 days, but some passengers have been trying to get refunds from the airline for longer than four months. The consumer champion heard from two passengers who have been waiting over 130 days for refunds for flights that were cancelled in March.

Tui was reprimanded by the CAA for issuing vouchers and then making customers wait a further 28 days before they could apply for their money back. Tui told the CAA that “on average, cash refunds will be processed within 14 days”.

However, despite telling the regulator it is no longer automatically issuing vouchers, Tui still states on its website that customers must wait for a voucher before they can claim a cash refund. Which? has heard from a passenger who is yet to even receive the voucher that she needs to claim her refund – or received any other communication from Tui – after her flight was cancelled in April.

Following its review, the CAA said a number of airlines have committed to speeding up the time it is taking to process refunds without requiring enforcement action, and that it would continue to monitor those airlines and continue to push for further improvements.

It said it would consider if enforcement action was appropriate if airlines failed to meet their commitments. However, it also highlighted that its enforcement powers are not well suited to swift action, and that it can take a considerable period of time for a case to come before the courts.

Which? is concerned that if airlines are continually allowed to openly break the law on refunds through this crisis, it will set a precedent that sees airlines continue to treat passengers unfairly without fear of consequence or sanctions.

Airlines have repeatedly been given the benefit of the doubt, but some have treated the regulator’s efforts to secure voluntary commitments with indifference. It is clear that more needs to be done to give the CAA the clout to effectively hold airlines to account.

Which? is calling for the government to enhance the CAA’s existing powers to allow it to more easily take swift and meaningful action against airlines that have repeatedly been exposed for disregarding the law and their passengers over the course of the pandemic.

The consumer champion believes this should be the first of a series of reforms to the travel industry, to help ensure the future of international travel from the UK and to help restore consumer trust in the sector.

Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said:

“Time after time, Which? has exposed airlines breaking the law on refunds for cancelled flights due to the pandemic and treating their passengers unfairly, and we’re concerned that they now feel empowered to do as they please without fear of punishment.

“Passengers must be able to rely on a regulator that has effective powers to protect their rights – especially at a time of unprecedented turmoil. The government needs to step up and ensure the CAA has the tools it needs to hold airlines to account, or risk consumer trust in the travel industry being damaged beyond repair.”

Case studies

Kirsty Ness requested a cash refund from Ryanair immediately after her flights were cancelled in late March, but on 20 April she received a voucher instead. Kirsty has called Ryanair several times to cash in the voucher, but she has yet to receive her refund.

Palliative care nurse Jeanette Howard was sent a voucher for her Ryanair flights to Alicante that were cancelled on 20 March, even though she had applied for a cash refund. She says she’s called the airline ‘on a daily basis’ since late April to ask to exchange the voucher for cash, but she’s still waiting for her money back.

Jeff Palmer and his wife were due to fly with Virgin Atlantic to Vegas on 9 April. He first requested a refund from Virgin on 31 March after they cancelled his flights, and told Which? he has tried ‘every method under the sun’ to contact them. He received emails telling him it would be 90 days, then 50, then another 14, before receiving a refund for his flight but not his wife’s – despite it being part of the same booking. He told Which? he has contacted them several times since, and still no sign of a refund for her ticket.

Kath Lowe’s Tui flight from Manchester to Tenerife was cancelled on 29 April, but she hasn’t received a voucher – or any other communication – from Tui and until she does she can’t claim a refund. She says she’s tried calling Tui on many occasions but she’s never managed to get through to its call centre.

Notes to editors:

Under EU law, UK and EU airlines are obliged to refund passengers for cancelled flights within seven days, but during the Covid-19 pandemic many airlines have been taking months to issue refunds.
The CAA has said airlines should make refunds promptly and ‘work towards getting as close to the seven days as possible’.
CAA review into airline refund practices during the Covid-19 pandemic:
Contact details for case studies available on request.

Rights of replies:

A Tui spokesperson said:

“Customers with cancelled flight only bookings which were due to depart before 11 July were issued refund credit vouchers, and could then apply for a cash refund via our online form. These refunds were processed within 28 days.

“Customers with cancelled flight only bookings which were due to depart from 11 July onwards will automatically receive cash refunds. These refunds will be processed within 14 days.

“We’re really sorry to any customers who may have experienced delays in receiving their refund.”

Tui has also confirmed a voucher was sent to the case study in May but speculated it may have been lost in junk mail. They’ve now requested for this to be cancelled and a refund to be issued.

A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said:

“The huge volume of refund requests we have received, combined with the constraints on our teams and systems during the pandemic, has meant that refunds have been taking longer than usual to process, and we sincerely apologise for this.

“Since April, we have been focussed on making improvements wherever possible. We’ve boosted the size of the team dedicated to processing refunds five-fold, with over 200 people now directly involved. This has increased our capacity to process a greater number of refunds, more quickly and we continue to minimise the wait time for existing refund requests.

“Thanks to the progress made, we are steadily reducing the maximum processing time for each new Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays cash refund. For customers requesting a refund in August, we expect the maximum processing time to be 80 days, from the date the refund is requested. For those requesting a refund in September, we expect it to take a maximum of 60 days, and then reduce to 30 days for refunds requested in October, before returning to normal levels.

“Up until recently we have been committed to processing existing refunds within a maximum of 120 days, from the date the refund is requested, and we inform each customer when this is done by email. The timeframe begins from the date the refund is requested and acknowledged by a customer agent, not the date the flight is cancelled.

“We are aware that there are a portion of Virgin Atlantic bookings with pending refund requests which were incorrectly inputted and unfortunately now exceed 120 days for processing. This was an administration error and as soon as this was identified we urgently investigated. We are resolving this as a priority and any customers affected will have their refund processed as soon as possible.”

The CAA said:

“We will review any supplementary evidence provided to us by Which? – beyond the 12,000 submitted to us during the review – but we will need to see individual examples in order to consider what further action is needed with the airlines.

“Throughout our review, alongside information received from airlines, we also used information from consumers and consumer groups, as well as mystery shopping from our consumer protection team, to determine what commitments were needed from airlines to improve performance.

“If we had not received such commitments during our review, then our next step would be to consider formal enforcement action. However, this enforcement process can take a significant period of time without providing short-term results for consumers. For example, the enforcement action we commenced against Ryanair in 2018 is not expected to come to court until at least 2021.

“While our initial review has finished, we have been clear that we will continue to monitor performance and should any airline fall short of the commitments they have made to us, we will take further action as required.”

Ryanair did not respond to Which?’s request for a comment

Press Release