In a fortnight that has seen the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of Monarch and Ryanair customers thrown into chaos, a Which? investigation reveals how knowledge of vital Atol protection is misunderstood at some travel companies including Thomas Cook, one of Britain’s best known agents.
Posing as potential customers, Which? Travel made 80 calls to eight travel companies, asking several questions about the circumstances where holidaymakers would be covered by Atol protection. It found a lack of knowledge among staff about whether protections exist in a number of situations, with exaggerated and contradictory advice potentially leaving customers high and dry in the event that their travel company goes out of business.
Atol is run by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Travel companies in the scheme must pay £2.50 for each person they book on a holiday. This money creates a fund that is used by the CAA to ensure that holidaymakers will get their money back if the airline, the hotel or the agent itself goes bust. More importantly, it also ensures that if they do fold you will be repatriated from abroad. However, a Which? Investigation discovered that many of these companies have little idea of when it applies and what it means.
Staff at Thomas Cook performed particularly poorly, getting less than 50% of questions right. Despite being the UK’s second biggest Atol holder, the company answered ‘don’t know’ to more questions than anyone else. They also struggled to correctly answer whether holidaymakers were protected when booking a flight and a hotel at the same time, or if a hotel is booked the day after a flight. In eight out of ten calls, staff couldn’t answer either of those questions correctly.
British Airways and lastminute.com also exaggerated Atol protection, with representatives of the former telling researchers on several occasions that they would be covered if they just purchased a flight. That’s inaccurate, as their flight-only bookings are not covered.
Bravofly, part of the lastminute.com group, had the least informed staff, who got nearly three quarters of questions wrong. In eight out of 10 instances they couldn’t correctly tell Which? researchers whether they could get a refund if there was something wrong with their hotel. Similarly, in seven out of 10 cases they couldn’t tell researchers whether they’d be protected if they had to cancel their holiday.
Acting as customers, investigators also twice emailed online travel agency eDreams to ask if a booking would be Atol protected. In both cases it replied, falsely, that it would. In fact, eDreams was up until recently registered with a scheme in its home region of Catalonia, not with Atol at all. Edreams has subsequently acquired Atol protection.
Similarly, Ryanair incorrectly claimed (on a since amended blogpost) that Ryanair Holidays (a subsidiary of Ryanair) was a member of the scheme. Ryanair Holidays is actually run by a German company and so not legally required to be Atol protected. Instead it is part of a financial protection scheme in Germany. However, Which? researchers found the information provided by Ryanair Holidays about its protection confusing and difficult to understand. It included the promise that holidaymakers would be sent a ‘Sicherungsschein’, secured payment certificate. Ryanair Holidays has since changed its explanation of its financial protection although it is still not clear how a claim to the German equivalent of Atol would be made. The website’s financial protection page now says: “In the unlikely event of insolvency, all passengers will be able to submit a claim through the Ryanair Holidays website.” Ryanair Holidays told us back in July that they were in the process of applying for an Atol but as of today’s date, they still aren’t appearing on the CAA website register.
The investigation was designed to look at holiday companies’ failure to explain Atol protection rules around ‘Flight+’ bookings. These are trips where the customer books a flight with another product such as a hotel. All eight companies we looked at offer these kinds of bookings. Companies such as Monarch that sold full package holidays but not flight+ were not included. Thomson, Easyjet Holidays, Jet2 Holidays were also omitted.
Rory Boland, Which? Travel editor said:
“Given the recent chaos caused by Monarch going into administration and Ryanair’s flight cancellation shambles, it’s just not good enough that travel agents don’t understand the rules around holiday protections – especially when they are exaggerating the cover on offer.
“Atol registered companies need to improve the accuracy of the information they are providing to their customers, and companies registered abroad must do more to inform customers in the UK about what protections they will be covered by.”
Notes to editors:
Travel agents getting it wrong on Atol http://www.which.co.uk/news/20
Thomas Cook said: “Our booking systems automatically include the correct Atol cover on all of the products that we sell, so customers will always receive the right level of protection whatever they buy from us.”
British Airways said: “Booking with a global brand such as BA gives customers additional reassurance. British Airways Holidays offers full Atol protection and complies with its obligations to customers.”
Bravofly We phoned the UK number on its UK website but its PR team later told us that we’d been put through to the Bravofly.com worldwide team, which doesn’t offer Atol. Bravofly said: “Despite the calls being made to our Bravofly.com hotline we would still expect to provide expert knowledge regarding Atol. Customers who have booked with us and are protected will receive the Atol certificate with full details.”
Ryanair’s Kenny Jacobs said: “Ryanair holidays complies with all legal and regulatory requirements including EU provisions relating to insolvency protection.“Ryanair Holidays’ application for ATOL protection remains ongoing. We expect the CAA to grant ATOL protection shortly.”
eDreams said: “If our customer service agents have provided incorrect information in error, then we apologise. We take such mistakes very seriously and we have already raised it with our agents to eliminate any future potential confusion on this matter”.
Lastminute.com said: “We would like to reassure all customers that all information relevant to Atol protection is provided on every step of our online booking process and also on our homepage.”
Travelpack said: “We never intended to mislead clients. In the event of a scheduled airline failing, we have insurance policies in place. We’ve fully refunded or reprojected clients when this has happened.”
Trailfinders said: ‘Trailfinders clients are always covered by Atol as well as by our own protection, where all monies paid to us are held in a trust, ensuring that in the very unlikely event of our insolvency, money paid in respect of future travel will be fully refunded.’
Travel Republic said: ‘When a customer makes a flight-only booking through Travel Republic, they are always financially protected (in the case of airline insolvency) either through Atol or by our own Airline Failure Protection Scheme.’
Expedia said: ‘We’re happy to be one of the best performers but we recognise that there’s room for improvement. It’s important that forthcoming changes to Package Holiday Regulations and Atol provide more clarity for consumers as well as travel companies.’
Investigation conducted by Which? Travel magazine in June 2017.