British Airways and EasyJet are going against EU guidance and refusing to refund unused vouchers for flights cancelled during the pandemic, Which? can reveal.
Some passengers willingly accepted vouchers in place of cash refunds when their flights were cancelled because of coronavirus, believing they were helping the airlines. But others claim they weren’t told they were entitled to cash refunds, or that they were misled into accepting vouchers they didn’t want.
The European Commission issued guidance in May recommending that airlines automatically refund any unused vouchers 14 days after they expire. However, this is only guidance, not a legal requirement.
While Ryanair says its vouchers can be refunded at any time, BA and Easyjet insist that once issued, their vouchers can not be exchanged for cash. That means passengers could be left hundreds of pounds out of pocket if they do not use them by the time they expire.
When flights are cancelled by an EU airline or by an airline flying from an EU airport, passengers are entitled to a cash refund under EU Regulation 261 within seven days of the cancellation. But after the pandemic grounded most flights leaving the UK earlier this year, all of the UK’s biggest airlines failed to meet this legal requirement, and many passengers were given vouchers instead.
At the height of the pandemic earlier in the year, many customers with cancelled flights struggled to contact airlines to ask for their money back. BA customers in particular complained after the airline removed its online refund form from its website and directed people to its overwhelmed customer service line, which played an automated message before hanging up on the passenger.
Some BA passengers have also complained to Which? that they automatically received vouchers for cancelled flights when they thought they’d applied for refunds through the website’s ‘Manage my booking’ page.
BA denies its claims process is misleading, saying that it has issued more than 2.1 million cash refunds. It said it is clear that customers must call to request cash refunds, and insists that they only get a voucher if they fill out a form that clearly states they are requesting a voucher.
While Easyjet passengers can request a refund online when their flight is cancelled, some willingly accepted vouchers to help support the airline. But some passengers now may not be able to use their vouchers because the airline has cut back on some routes in recent months, and Easyjet has said it will only refund vouchers in “exceptional circumstances as a gesture of goodwill”.
A number of Easyjet’s flight routes have yet to restart, and a number of routes passengers were initially booked on have been dropped since vouchers were issued, after the airline pulled out of Southend Airport and dropped a number of routes from Newcastle and Stansted airports. Easyjet’s vouchers are only valid for a year, meaning many passengers may be left with vouchers they cannot use.
BA has dropped 60 per cent of its flights up to the end of this year and also pulled out of the Isle of Man. However, it has extended the validity of its vouchers so they can be used any time up to April 2022.
Additionally, BA and Easyjet both say vouchers are transferable, so passengers can pass them on to family and friends if they are unable to use them.
On top of ignoring guidance on refunds for unused vouchers, BA and EasyJet have also said that they will not be offering refunds for flights that operate as scheduled, meaning many passengers will only have the option of rebooking their flight to a later date if they cannot fly due to England’s latest lockdown. Ryanair has also said it will not offer refunds for flights that are not cancelled while passengers are in lockdown.
Which? believes the Civil Aviation Authority should be doing a better job of making it clear to airlines that they should be following legal guidance on vouchers and refunds, but without powers to issue fines or take swift action, it has struggled to get a grip as airlines have played fast and loose with the rules during the pandemic.
To help restore trust in the travel industry, the government must urgently review the CAA’s powers as part of its aviation recovery plan, to ensure passengers have an aviation regulator with the powers it needs to stand up for their rights.
Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said:
“As we head into a winter that is bound to bring more flight cancellations, it’s extremely concerning to see the UK’s biggest airlines disregarding European guidance and letting their passengers down when it comes to their refund rights.
“BA and Easyjet must immediately make it clear that passengers will not face losing their money if they are unable to use a voucher, while all airlines should be offering cash refunds to passengers prevented from travelling by lockdown laws.
“Major airlines have acted shamefully and without fear of consequences during this pandemic – the government must urgently review the CAA’s powers as part of its aviation recovery plan to ensure passengers have a regulator that can effectively stand up for them.”
Notes to editors:
Some passengers have successfully secured refunds for vouchers they claim they didn’t ask for by going through their airline’s ADR scheme. The CAA recommends anyone who had a voucher forced upon them, or whose airline is refusing to refund them should do the same – BA uses CEDR, while EasyJet uses CDRL. Passengers whose airline isn’t a member of an ADR scheme should seek redress through the CAA’s Passenger Advice and Complaints team.
Jackie Harbridge says when she called BA to request a refund a recorded message directed her to Manage My Booking on BA’s website, but when she clicked on the refund button, she says she received a voucher for £2,118 for the flights to San Francisco.
She tried to call BA immediately, but struggled to get through. When she eventually got to speak to an agent she was told that since she had requested vouchers the decision could not be reversed.
“I was completely misguided by the instruction in BA’s Manage My Booking, which specifically quoted ‘Refund’ but turned out to be for a voucher, which is completely useless to us,” said Jackie. She and her 83-year-old husband no longer plan to travel so they can’t make use of the vouchers.
Kim Norris received a cash refund of £1,099 after taking her case of an unwanted voucher to BA’s alternative dispute resolution service, CEDR. It said that, on the balance of probabilities, she had not agreed to accept a voucher.
BA said that Kim applied for a voucher via its website, but it only provided CEDR a screenshot of the type of form it says she filled out, not her specific form. BA acknowledged that Kim had asked twice for a refund, by phone and by email. CEDR found that when BA issued the voucher, it was unlikely that Kim had voluntarily consented to accept it.
In its ruling, CEDR also pointed to a recommendation from the European Commission that if vouchers haven’t been redeemed by the end of their validity period they should be automatically reimbursed within 14 days.
Rights of reply:
An Easyjet spokesperson said:
“For passengers who have chosen a voucher as compensation for their cancelled flight, we would only reverse this and offer a refund in exceptional circumstances as a gesture of goodwill if the customer’s circumstances justify it (eg. A school group no longer able to re-travel).”
A British Airways spokesperson said:
“We do not auto-issue vouchers, they can only be issued when a customer has requested them by filling out the form. Our website is clear that when filling out the form it is to apply for vouchers.
“Customers are always entitled to a cash refund if their flight has been cancelled, and must call us to do this, which is clearly displayed on our website. Customers have up to a year after their flight was due to operate to get in touch with us for a cash refund – and we have processed over 2.1 million cash refunds to date.
“If a customer uses a voucher to make a new booking which is then subsequently cancelled by us, they would be entitled to choose either a cash refund (if the original booking was paid for in cash), or a voucher in a similar way as before.”