Tui, Europe’s largest tour operator, has apologised to frustrated customers for refund delays after a wave of criticism for its handling of cancelled holidays.
In an email sent to hundreds of thousands of customers, with the subject line “We’re sorry”, the company’s managing director for UK & Ireland, Andrew Flintham, said: “I’d like to apologise for the frustration you may have felt. I’d like to assure you that we’re dedicated to doing everything we can to make things better.”
The travel firm has now announced a new self-service refund system on its website that it claims will streamline the process, allowing thousands to finally claim their money back while relieving pressure on its beleaguered customer service staff.
Complainants previously had to phone a single line in order to seek reimbursement, resulting in Tui’s homebound support staff fielding almost a million calls a day – more than twice the normal amount.
Many callers were left waiting for hours to speak to a Tui representative; others had their calls cut off prematurely.
“We know we haven’t got it right; we’re doing everything we can to make things better and we’re sorry for the frustration felt by our customers,” said Mr Flintham.
“Taking people on incredible holidays is what we do best, but we’ve struggled to get the right systems in place to support our customers now that we can’t take them on holiday, especially at the speed of change we’ve faced in recent weeks.”
Those with holidays booked up to August 31 are also now able to make free amendments to their travel dates, provided they do so by June 30.
But some are claiming that despite improvements to the user experience, Tui’s refund policy still flouts the law.
Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said: "While it seems positive that Tui is finally allowing thousands of customers – many who have been unable to get through on the phone – to claim refunds online for cancelled holidays, the reality is that the company is still breaking the law by making customers accept a credit note to exchange for a cash refund at a later and unspecified date.
"Airlines and holiday companies cannot continue to withhold customers’ money from them, especially when so many will be in difficult financial situations of their own. The Government must urgently step in to support travel firms and airlines to ensure they can meet their legal obligations to refund customers, and avoid causing permanent damage to confidence in the travel industry.”
The consumer publication also asserts a pledge from Tui to refund customers within four weeks of application is in breach of the Package Travel Regulations, which state that customers are entitled to a cash refund within 14 days of cancellation.
A Tui UK spokesperson said: "Which? laid out a ten-point plan for the travel sector to maintain consumer trust, and we have full confidence that our cancellation and refund policies comply entirely with the points they have outlined.
"They have recognised that the refund timeframe needs extending from 14 days to one month, and we can confirm that our customers are receiving cash refunds within four weeks and using our online form will make the process easier in the future.
"We offer a refund credit as an alternative allowing customers, including those that have booked in a retail store, the opportunity to amend holidays online and the flexibility or waiting to re-book to another time, whilst keeping their booking ATOL protected. We always make it clear that they are able to get a cash refund as an alternative to refund credit."
While Tui continues to face reproach for its response to the chaos caused by Covid-19, Telegraph Travel’s consumer editor, Nick Trend, has urged travellers to make allowances for struggling firms, or risk threatening the future of the industry.
“Strictly speaking, customers are usually entitled to a cash refund in such circumstances. But many companies, in their struggle to survive, are trying to persuade people to accept a postponement - rebooking for a later date - or an offer of a credit for a future holiday,” he said.
“So, bearing the extremity of the situation in mind, I’ve changed the advice I give to those whose trips are cancelled and suggested that - if at all possible - they forbear from demanding a refund and accept an alternative offer. The more people who feel able to do this, the more travel companies will survive long enough to arrange our holidays in future.”