More than two million people haven’t received money back for flights they couldn’t board during the pandemic

Approximately 2.3 million people across the UK have not received money back for flights they could not take in the last year, with many unable to fly because of national or local lockdowns or restrictions at their destination, according to new research from Which?.

Since the UK went into its first lockdown in the middle of March last year, millions of people have had flight bookings that were not cancelled by the airline, but for reasons that were often out of their control they could not take, meaning that they were not legally entitled to a refund or guaranteed a successful claim through their travel insurance or bank.

Research from the consumer champion has found that approximately 2.3 million people across the UK have been left out of pocket for flights that were not cancelled, despite circumstances often meaning they reasonably – or in some cases, legally – could not travel to their destination.

Under EU 261 regulations, passengers flying on an EU-based carrier or flying from a country in the EU are entitled to a full refund within seven days if their flight is cancelled by the operator, but the regulations do not currently offer passengers any protection if their flight is not cancelled. However, in some circumstances where passengers couldn’t travel, it could be argued that the contract between the passenger and the airline had been frustrated.

Many passengers have been prevented from travelling because of local or national lockdowns, restrictions preventing entry at their destination, or the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) advising against non-essential travel.

Passengers in these circumstances would often have only been given the choice of rebooking their flight or losing their money. Rebooking may have meant paying a significant difference in fare if the new flights were more expensive, and trying to choose new dates without knowing when international travel is likely to resume again.

Of those who told Which? they didn’t get their money back, half (49%) claimed they could not travel because of national or regional lockdown restrictions instructing them to stay at home. While during the first national and local lockdowns instructions against non-essential travel were not always written into law, many passengers did not fly due to government guidance.

At the beginning of 2020, Rebekah Evans, from Barry in Wales, booked flights from Bristol to Turkey in October with Easyjet via an online travel agent, costing over £2,000. Two weeks before their holiday, Vale of Glamorgan entered a local lockdown that was set to be reviewed the day before they were due to fly. Rebekah did not rebook the flights or accept a voucher in the hope that they would be allowed to fly if the local lockdown was lifted.

When the day arrived though, the Welsh government announced a rolling lockdown, instructing people not to leave Wales unless for emergencies. At the time, England was not in a lockdown, so the flight went ahead. Rebekah initially missed out on the opportunity to claim a voucher for the cost of her flight, but since Which? intervened, Easyjet has agreed to offer Rebekah a voucher as a gesture of goodwill.

While travel under this lockdown was not prevented by law, during the November lockdown and under the current national lockdown restrictions, all non-essential travel has been illegal. Despite this, some airlines are currently still operating flights and refusing refunds for those who cannot legally travel.

Ayesha Ellis, from Essex, had flights for her and her family booked with Ryanair to fly to Gran Canaria on February 13th 2021. These were booked almost a year earlier in March 2020, before the UK went into its first lockdown. Despite the UK’s current lockdown preventing any non-essential travel, the flight went ahead as scheduled.

Ayesha paid more than £1,600 for her flights, but was told if she wanted to rearrange them, she would have to pay a fee of €95 per person per flight. Because the flights were booked before Ryanair dropped its flight change fee, this would have come to a total of €760 more for her family of four, plus the price difference of the new flights. Ayesha, a travel agent, has still not been refunded the £1,600 and told Which? she will never use the airline again, both personally and in her job.

Just over a quarter (27%) of those left out of pocket said they were unable to fly because of restrictions in place at their destination that would prevent them from entering the country.

Stephen Middleton, from Manchester, booked flights with Ryanair to Spain with his fiancée in July 2020, after the government allowed foreign travel again. They were due to fly in August, but paid more than £280 to move the flights to Christmas Eve after it was announced they would have to quarantine on their arrival back to the UK.

But when the time came for them to take their rearranged flight, they were again unable to travel because of restrictions at the Spanish border preventing them from entering the country. Stephen was told he could move his flights again, but would have had to pay more money to do so.

Others said they were unable to travel because the FCDO had advised against all non-essential travel to their destination, with nearly four in 10 (37%) citing this as their reason for not flying. While those with package holidays would have had their bookings cancelled by the provider in these circumstances, entitling them to a full refund, many airlines continued to operate flights to countries with an FCDO warning against non-essential travel, on the basis that they needed to operate them as scheduled in order to facilitate essential travel.

While not illegal, travelling against FCDO advice usually invalidates travel insurance, and could potentially put your health at risk by visiting a country with high rates of infection. Additionally, many of those returning from these destinations would have also had to quarantine for two weeks after returning to the UK, with three in 10 (28%) people saying the need to quarantine prevented them from travelling.

Which? first raised the issue of people being unable to get their money back for flights they couldn’t take because of lockdown with both the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in March 2020.

While not all passengers who told Which? they hadn’t received their money back were legally prohibited from flying, the consumer champion has shared its findings with the CMA to aid its investigation into whether airlines have breached consumers’ legal rights by failing to offer cash refunds for flights they could not lawfully take because of lockdown restrictions.

Which? is advising anyone considering booking flights for this summer to wait until the situation around international travel becomes clearer, and when the time comes, to book a package holiday rather than a flight-only booking for stronger passenger protections, and only with a trusted provider that offers a generous and flexible booking policy.

Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said:

“For almost a year now, Which? has been hearing from frustrated passengers who’ve been left out of pocket for flights they were unable to take, often through no fault of their own, because the flight went ahead as scheduled. While some have successfully been able to claim on their travel insurance or through their bank, others have been left high and dry.

“With non-essential travel currently illegal, airlines must play their part in protecting public health by ensuring no one is left out of pocket for abiding by the law and not travelling. All airlines should allow passengers the option to cancel for a full refund, as well as fee-free rebooking options, while these restrictions remain in place.”

Additional case studies:

Donna Smullen and her husband, both from Cheshire, had also booked flights to Spain with Ryanair, back in September 2019 when coronavirus was an unknown risk. They were due to travel in August 2020, but at the end of July, the FCDO warned against non-essential travel to Spain. A two week quarantine was introduced for flights returning from mainland Spain, but due to their jobs, quarantining on their return would not have been possible.

Donna was told by Ryanair she could change the date of their flights for a fee of €30 to €90 per person per flight, as long as they travelled before the end of 2020. This, plus the cost of any potential increase in the price of the flight, meant rebooking would have been more expensive than the flights themselves, so they took the hit instead of rebooking. Donna also claims that had they booked their flights during the pandemic, and not before it, they would have been offered free amendments. In total, she has been left over £500 out of pocket.

Rebecca Howe and her family, from Somerset, had flights booked to Lanzarote with Ryanair for December 27th, costing more than £980. They were unable to travel due to restrictions at the Spanish border, and were advised by Ryanair that they could only travel if they were Spanish nationals. Rebecca contacted Ryanair several times asking for a refund, but was told as the flight was still operating, she was not entitled to a refund. She was offered the choice to rebook her flights free up until the end of March, but as they had booked to travel during the school holidays over new year, new dates would not have been suitable for them.

Rights of reply:

Ryanair told Which? that passengers who book non refundable flights are not entitled to refunds if they choose not to travel on flights which have operated. However, passengers can avoid being out of pocket by “availing of Ryanair’s change facility, even for bookings which were made prior to any Covid-19 flight restrictions being introduced.”

Easyjet told Which?: “Our flexible lockdown policy was in place for all UK was between 5th Nov and 2nd Dec due to the England lockdown and again from 20th Dec and currently remains in place so passengers can receive refunds even on flights that continue to operate.

“At the time of Miss Evans’ flight our lockdown policy only covered countries we operated to and from. However, we were providing customers with the flexibility to change their flights without a change fee up to 14 days before departure and we offered her a voucher.

“We do require customers to contact us ahead of the flight departing to select an alternative option. Unfortunately Miss Evans only contacted us after the flight had operated. As a gesture of goodwill, on this occasion, we will be in touch to offer a voucher for the value of her flights.”

Notes to editors:

  1. Which? surveyed 2,001 adults in the UK between 9th and 11th February 2021. Fieldwork was carried out online by Opinium and data has been weighted to be representative of the UK population (aged 18+).
  2. Based on the survey findings and the mid-year population estimates from the Office for National Statistics, Which? estimates the number of people left out of pocket for flights they could not take to be between 2m and 2.7m.
  3. Passengers who were unable to travel may have been able to claim a refund on their travel insurance or by claiming their money back through their bank (via Section 75 or chargeback), and in some cases, on the basis that their contract had with the airline had been frustrated, but many others may have only had the option to rebook their flight for another date or accept a voucher – which would have been worthless in the event of their airline collapsing.
  4. A contract could be considered frustrated when circumstances beyond the parties  control mean the contract can’t go ahead at all, or can only go ahead in a way that is radically different to what was originally paid for.
  5. Ryanair and British Airways continue to refuse refunds for customers who can’t legally travel – January 2021
  6. Airlines refusing refunds for lockdowns under investigation – December 2020
  7. No refunds for flights still operating – March 2020

About Which?

Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.

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