Airlines causing ‘financial and emotional distress’ over refund delays

Simon Calder
Well drilled? Ryanair passengers boarding a flight at Palma de Mallorca, before the Covid-19 pandemic: Simon Calder

Travellers are suffering an emotional and financial ordeal chasing refunds from airlines, the consumer group Which? has said.

Under European air passengers’s rights rules, carriers that cancel flights are required to return the fare within a week of the cancellation.

But millions of travellers have been waiting for months to get their money back.

Which? has compiled a dossier of more than 14,000 refund complaints. The consumer group says passengers denied a refund are out of pocket by an average of £446, and have collectively spent a total of 52,000 hours – almost six years – chasing their airline for the money due.

Nearly half the complaints were from Ryanair passengers whose flights were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Of the 44 per cent who complained about the Irish airline, half said they had spent at least five hours trying to contact the airline for a refund.

In second place was easyJet, with one in seven of respondents deploring tardy refunds from Britain’s biggest budget airline.

Virgin Atlantic, which has just secured funding to keep it afloat, was third-most complained about. Its package holiday sister firm, Virgin Holidays, has been highlighted in surveys about slow refunds

Lynn Fox and her husband remortgaged their house in January to pay for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Florida with Virgin Holidays costing £6,700.

Ms Fox was made redundant in March. When Virgin cancelled the holiday, she said she was unable to contact the company and requests for a refund went unanswered.

She has now been told a refund is being processed.

Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said: “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.

“The regulator must act swiftly on this evidence and take strong action against those airlines that have repeatedly been exposed for flouting the rules.”

Airlines say they have had to process millions of refunds while the vast majority of staff are either furloughed or working from home. But a few carriers, including Jet2, have been complimented on their timely refunds.

A spokesperson for Ryanair said: “This is yet another baseless survey of two men and a dog from Which?.

“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 Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said: “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.”

Which? has passed the complaints on to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) as part of its review of how airlines have handled cancellations and refunds in recent months.

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