The consumer champion accused the two major British airlines of ignoring EU guidance, which stipulates that airlines should automatically refund any unused vouchers 14 days after they expire.
However, the guidance, issued by the European Commission back in May, is just that – guidance, rather than legally binding.
While other airlines, including Ryanair, have made it clear that vouchers can be exchanged for a full refund at any time, BA and easyJet have not given customers this option.
It means passengers who accepted a voucher early in the pandemic could end up left out of pocket if they don’t manage to use their voucher before it expires.
Under normal circumstances, if an EU airline or airline flying from an EU country cancels a commercial flight, it has a responsibility to issue customers with a cash refund within seven days of the cancellation.
However, when the coronavirus pandemic grounded the majority of services worldwide, airlines struggled to meet the consumer protection laws laid out in EU Regulation 261.
In many cases, customers were strongly encouraged to accept a credit voucher they could exchange for a future flight, rather than a refund. For example, back in April, while BA’s credit vouchers were easily obtained via an online form, customers had to call up the airline and endure lengthy hold times in order to claim a cash refund.
EasyJet also initially removed the automatic refund option from its website in a bid to persuade passengers to take vouchers for future travel instead. Like British Airways, it insisted passengers phone the airline to get a refund. The carrier later restored the option to claim a cash refund online.
Some BA passengers complained to Which? that they automatically received vouchers for cancelled flights, even though they thought they had applied for refunds through the website’s ‘Manage my booking’ page.
BA insists its claims process is clear and transparent.
In other cases, passengers say they voluntarily took a voucher to help out their airline.
But many travellers who took this option have struggled to use vouchers, given global travel restrictions and the UK’s own tumultuous travel corridors policy that has changed on a weekly basis since it was first introduced over the summer.
BA has extended the expiration date on refund vouchers; they can be used to book a flight up until April 2022.
“We do not auto-issue vouchers, they can only be issued when a customer has requested them by filling out the form,” a British Airways spokesperson told The Independent. “Our website is clear that when filling out the form it is to apply for vouchers. Our vouchers are valid for use until April 2022.
“Customers are always entitled to a cash refund if their flight has been cancelled, which is clearly displayed on our website. Customers have up to a year after their flight was due to operate to get in touch with us for a cash refund – and we have processed more than 2.5 million cash refunds to date.”
EasyJet’s vouchers are only valid for a year, and the airline says it would only swap vouchers for cash in “exceptional circumstances as a gesture of goodwill”.
However, while a voucher needs to be used to rebook within 12 months, dates of travel can be after the voucher expiry date for any flight currently on sale.
“Where a flight is cancelled, customers are notified in advance and informed of the options they can choose from which – as well as a voucher for the whole value of the booking – includes transferring their flights free of charge or a refund for the full value of the booking, even if just one leg of their trip is cancelled,” said an easyJet spokesperson.
“If a customer chooses a flight voucher this can be used to make a booking up to 12 months after the voucher has been issued and the booking can be for travel beyond the voucher expiry date for any flights currently on sale. Flights are currently available to book up until 30 September 2021 and we have been bringing our on-sale dates forward to provide customers with more choice to rebook their trip in the future.
“In the event their new booking is impacted by any changes in travel restrictions, customers would be provided with further options to rebook.”
Which? called on the government to extend the powers of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the aviation regulator, so that it is able to bring airlines into line when they are found to be giving misleading information on refunds.
Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said: “As we head into a winter that is bound to bring more flight cancellations, it’s extremely concerning to see the UK’s biggest airlines disregarding European guidance and letting their passengers down when it comes to their refund rights.
“BA and Easyjet must immediately make it clear that passengers will not face losing their money if they are unable to use a voucher, while all airlines should be offering cash refunds to passengers prevented from travelling by lockdown laws.
“Major airlines have acted shamefully and without fear of consequences during this pandemic – the government must urgently review the CAA’s powers as part of its aviation recovery plan to ensure passengers have a regulator that can effectively stand up for them.”
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