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.
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.
Lynn Fox, 42, was made redundant in March after her employer went into administration, before her self-employed husband was left without work due to the pandemic. They had remortgaged their house in January to pay for a once-in-a-lifetime holiday with Virgin Holidays to Florida costing £6,700. But when Virgin cancelled the holiday, Lynn was unable to contact the company and requests for a refund went unanswered.
Both Lynn and her husband have been relying on Universal Credit and told Which? that without the money they were owed, they feared they may struggle to pay their mortgage for the next year. However, after Which? contacted Virgin about her story, she received an email saying her refund is now being processed.
Which? also heard from Laura McAdam, 26, who needed to fly back to her family home after losing her job and worrying about becoming homeless. Laura told Which? she suffers from severe depression and anxiety, and that she eventually stopped chasing Easyjet after spending approximately 12 hours trying to get a refund, as the distress was taking a toll on her on top of everything else going on in her life.
Laura said Easyjet only gave her the option of rebooking or accepting a credit note, and that all her emails to the airline went ignored. She told Which? the £120 – which she is still waiting to be refunded – would make a huge difference to her given how little money she has to live on. However, after being contacted by Which?, Easyjet said it has contacted Laura to apologise for the inconvenience caused and asked for her refund to be processed immediately.
Alisya Boyraz, 22, and her partner were due to relocate from the UK to China for work in February, having quit their jobs and arranged to move out of their home in January. However, after Emirates cancelled their flight in March they had to postpone their move – losing their jobs, the apartment they had secured in China, and a significant amount of their savings in the process. They are now also out of pocket by over £1,080 for their cancelled flight, as the travel agent she booked with, Travel2Be, has not refunded them yet.
Alisya told Which? that their Chinese visas have now expired meaning if they do not make it to China, they will have lost a further £1,300 spent on legal fees for the move. They are now having to rely on friends and family for somewhere to live, and that her partner is still out of work, months on from the flight being cancelled. Alisya said the money owed to them would make a significant difference to their lives while her partner is out of work, and would help cover some of the money lost as a result of their move being postponed.
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.
Which? also believes the serious problems people have faced in recent months have demonstrated that major reforms to the travel industry are necessary. The consumer champion will set out in the coming months steps that the government should take in order to restore consumer trust in the travel sector.
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.”
Notes to editors:
- Which? launched its tool allowing airline passengers to report their airline to the CAA on May 22nd 2020. Since launching the tool, it has received over 14,000 reports which it has passed onto the regulator, of which 12,602 have been analysed.
- Visit the campaign page for ‘Refund Us. Reform Travel.’ and sign the petition here: https://campaigns.which.co.uk/travel/
- Report your airline to the regulator: https://action.which.co.uk/page/s/flight-complaint
- More than eight in 10 Ryanair passengers still waiting for refunds – 28 May 2020
- Contact details for case studies available on request.
Rights of replies:
An Etihad spokesperson said:
While every effort is being made to process refunds, there have been occasions where it took longer to handle requests. This has been due to the extremely high number of calls and claims received.
In addition to offering full refunds, we also introduced a generous travel credit option for use against future travel. Extra resources were also brought in to ease the situation, resulting in considerably improved service levels.
We regret any inconvenience or distress faced by our customers and we thank them for their continued patience and understanding.
An Easyjet spokesperson said:
“As the UK’s largest airline, easyJet carries more passengers than other airlines which means we have also had to make more cancellations during this period.
“Throughout this Covid period, we’ve continued to offer our customers a refund option, in addition to free changes or a voucher. We’ve also ensured that the refund request is easy and straightforward, via a dedicated refund webform online. All of these entitlements can be accessed through our online Covid Help Hub.
“We are processing refunds for customers and aim to do so in less than 28 days. But in these unprecedented times, the volume of cancellations compounded by local lockdown restrictions leading to reduced staffing levels in our customer contact centres, means that processing of refunds is taking longer than usual. To help our customers, we have invested extra resources into the call centre to help reduce our queue as quickly as possible.”
A Ryanair spokesperson said:
“This is yet another baseless survey of two men and a dog from Which?.
“Ryanair has already processed over €500m in refunds and vouchers since mid-March, which is over 40% of Ryanair’s total backlog of Covid cancellations in March, April, May & June.
“The process time for cash refunds is taking longer due to unprecedented volumes and the fact that we have fewer staff available due to social distancing measures.”
A Tui spokesperson said:
“We remain sorry for the delay to customers and have apologised to customers directly who were particularly impacted by the delays during the height of lockdown. The world closed around us, retail stores closed and teams had to work from home; we simply couldn’t keep up with the volume of customers we had to help. In total we’ve cancelled holidays for nearly 1.5 million customers.
“We worked day and night to resolve this by building new systems to support retail customers digitally and set up 1000 Retail Advisers to work from home so they could manage cancellations remotely. Once our new systems were built customers were able to request refunds online.
“Since we’ve made these changes, our phone lines have an average call waiting time of 15 minutes, online forms are actioned in real time and customers are refunded within 14 days.
“We really appreciate the continued patience and understanding of our customers.”
In response to the CAA data analysis, Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said:
“Virgin Atlantic understands the difficulties that the Covid-19 crisis poses to our customers with upcoming travel plans, and we are offering as much flexibility as possible for those whose trips are affected.
“We’re helping customers with upcoming travel plans to rebook on an alternative date free-of-charge, with the option to change their destination, all the way until 30 September 2022.
“As a direct result of the crisis and global travel restrictions, we have had to make significant cancellations to our flying programme, with a selection of core routes recommencing from 20 July 2020. To provide immediate peace of mind, where a flight is cancelled, we’re automatically providing a customer credit equal to the value of the trip. This credit can be used to rebook on alternative dates, allowing for a destination change and name change, for travel all the way until 30 September 2022. If the rebooked travel date occurs before 30 November 2020, we’ll also waive any potential fare difference. This process gives customers the flexibility and time to decide their future travel plans with Virgin Atlantic when they are ready to do so.
“Our absolute focus remains on supporting all of our loyal customers, whether that’s to amend, rebook or cancel plans during the Covid-19 crisis. We continue to be inundated with an unprecedented volume of refund requests, while working through a backlog, and unfortunately these are taking longer than usual to be processed.
“Our customer centre and finance teams are working from home with limited infrastructure, so in order to accelerate the process, we have boosted the size of the team handling refunds. These additional staff are receiving training to use the required systems, which is increasing our capacity to process refunds.
“We would reassure all customers that if they’ve eligibly requested a refund, it will be repaid in full, and the work to process refunds is our priority. Payments are being prioritised based on how long the customer has been waiting for their refund, working in order from March 2020 onwards.
“We are committed to completing each refund at the earliest opportunity, but we would assure customers that payment will be processed within an absolute maximum of 120 days, from the date the refund is requested. We are making every effort to reduce this timeframe wherever possible in these extraordinary circumstances and thank all of our customers for their patience.
In response to Lynn’s experience, a Virgin Holidays spokesperson said:
“Virgin Holidays understands the difficulties that the Covid-19 crisis poses to our customers with upcoming travel plans, and we are offering as much flexibility as possible for those whose trips are affected.
“Our absolute focus remains on supporting all of our loyal customers, whether that’s to amend, rebook or cancel plans. As a direct result of the Covid-19 crisis and the global travel restrictions imposed, Virgin Holidays has had to make significant holiday cancellations and we continue to be inundated with an unprecedented volume of refund requests, while working through a backlog, and unfortunately these are taking longer than usual to be processed.
“Our customer centre and finance teams have been working from home with limited infrastructure, so in order to accelerate the process, we have boosted the size of the team handling refunds. These additional staff are receiving training to use the required systems, which is increasing our capacity to process refunds.
“We would reassure all Virgin Holidays customers that if they’ve requested a refund, it will be repaid in full, and the work to process refunds is our priority. Payments are being prioritised based on how long the customer has been waiting for their refund, working in order from March 2020 onwards.
“We are committed to completing each refund at the earliest opportunity, but we would assure customers that payment will be processed within an absolute maximum of 120 days, from the date the refund is requested. We are making every effort to reduce this timeframe wherever possible in these extraordinary circumstances and thank all of our customers for their patience.”
An Emirates spokesperson said:
“We have introduced a refund policy to ensure all customers can request a travel voucher or full refund for flights cancelled due to COVID-19. Our investigation shows that this customer’s booking was made through a travel agent who has unfortunately not yet requested a refund on behalf of the passenger. We encourage the customer to contact the agent who needs to apply for the refund.”
Travel2Be did not respond to a request for comment