My battle for a cancelled flight refund, and how it finally broke me

·6-min read
Airline cancellation policies - SEAN GLADWELL/Moment RF
Airline cancellation policies - SEAN GLADWELL/Moment RF

About 20 minutes into my call with KLM customer services, I finally broke. It was my second attempt that morning to ask for a refund because the flight I had booked only a day earlier – for August – had been cancelled.

In all I had been on hold for quite some time, and then, when I finally got through, I was informed that there would be no refund forthcoming.

At first I thought this a joke, or more likely, a cock-up: one of those bureaucratic errors which ancient airline computer systems – their cogs and steam pumps almost audibly whirring in the background – are so apt to deliver.

“But YOU cancelled the flight,” I confess I shouted. It was true. The 11.25am flight to Sweden, chosen specifically, and in the face of other options, so that we could get up at a reasonable hour and my two boys, aged nine and seven, would not be wiped out for their summer holiday, had disappeared overnight, like some victim of a post-Covid Bermuda Triangle. There on Tuesday, it had gone on Wednesday, to be replaced by a 6.25am alternative.

But I didn’t want to fly at 6.25am, which would mean getting up at 2am. And given that there were plenty of alternatives, it was no problem. I would just get my refund and book a different flight.

Informed of the change by email, when I logged on to the KLM website, it initially seemed all would be well. My tickets were ‘non-refundable’ in the event that I decided to change my mind – not, however, if the airline chose to do so. The adult ticket was refunded no problem, at the click of a button. For the child seat, however, an online form would have to be filled out. Except that, having filled out the form, and clicked submit, nothing happened. So I did it again. And again. And on a different browser.

And each time I did so, the awful realisation grew within me that I was going to have to pick up a telephone and call.

There is not much that is more annoying than an automated voice telling you, while you are interminably on hold having been crushed by a website from the neolithic era, that life would be so much easier if only you were to “process your query online”. Ah yes! But I tried that, you mutter, among other unrepeatable words. But your website doesn’t work. The automated voice doesn’t care. It just carries on, on its loop, until it gets round to telling you to naff off to the website again.

And then, when you do get through, the first customer rep puts you on hold. You smile and wait and check your emails. Then eventually you prise the handset away from your cheek and look down at the screen because the silence has become suspiciously deathly, and you see that actually you’ve been cut off, and have been cradling the phone uselessly for 11 minutes, like one of those mother wildebeests on a David Attenborough documentary, nuzzling the body of its dead calf in a forlorn attempt to make it get up.

Stockholm old town city skyline, cityscape of Sweden - Getty
Stockholm old town city skyline, cityscape of Sweden - Getty

So you go through the whole rigmarole again, only to be told, when all the checks are done, that KLM will not be handing any money back, and that you can accept a “non-refundable voucher valid for 12 months”.

“But I don’t want a voucher, I want my money back.”

No dice. If it’s actual money you want back, they told me, actual money like the actual money you gave us ONLY 24 HOURS AGO, we might be able to hand you back the taxes. A pittance in other words. Your ticket is non-refundable. Which is where we came in.

“But YOU cancelled the flight.”

That was immaterial. As was the fact that they had already refunded me another, equally “non refundable” ticket, and had even sent me a receipt for doing so. Ah no, came back the convoluted explanation for the impossibility of a refund. That was just a receipt of your claim being submitted. Not of the money actually being sent back.

Which was just patent balls. “We are pleased to inform you that the refunded amount will be credited to your account as soon as possible,” reads the receipt.

At which point I had no other option other than to believe that they were simply trying it on, effectively challenging me to go scale a vast bureaucratic mountain to get my money back, or cave. And betting that I would cave. It was like a telephonic version of a chicken.

The ghastly thing is that I might well have caved. Despite the clear and unequivocal language from Citizens Advice: “If your flight is cancelled you have the legal right to … a full refund”. And from money saving expert Martin Lewis: “When a flight is cancelled, however long before it was due to take off, you have a right to choose between EITHER a refund for the flight that was cancelled, OR an alternative flight to your destination.”

But it is terrifying how quickly, in the face of powerlessness, rage melts into mute compliance. I can only guess how many readers, having been driven mad by airlines relentlessly cancelling flights and trying the same stonewalling tactics as KLM, have found their energy sapped and themselves giving in.

Only because I have the good fortune to know that I could write this piece did I not give up. So as the customer service staffer told me again and again to accept the voucher, I eventually said no, I would not. And put the phone down. In doing so, had I not been a journalist, I doubtless would also have said goodbye to my cash.

This at a moment when airlines are surely desperate to rekindle a relationship of trust and comfort with their customers. Nothing could be further from the reality. It might be understandable that, struggling to recover post-Covid, they have to chop and change their schedules. But if flights are routinely cancelled, they must make it a matter of routine for customers to recoup their cash. Not a voucher. Not an alternative flight at the crack of doom. But cash.

Rant over.

KLM have been contacted by the Telegraph for their comments but at the time of going to press were yet to respond

Read more: Everything you need to know and do if your flight has been delayed or cancelled

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