Coronavirus: UK airlines plead for a refund holiday as cancellations mount

Carriers including British Airways, easyJet and Virgin Atlantic want an indefinite payback deadline – dependent on traffic volume 

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 27 March 2020 13:29
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Planes stand on Heathrow Airport apron as flights cancelled amid coronavirus outbreak

After Canada became the first major country to allow airlines to offer travel vouchers rather than cash refunds for cancelled flights, airlines in the UK are urging the government to do the same.

The Canadian Transport Agency said: “An appropriate approach in the current context could be for airlines to provide affected passengers with vouchers or credits for future travel, as long as these vouchers or credits do not expire in an unreasonably short period of time.”

It said that a two-year validity would be considered “reasonable”.

Airlines UK, representing British Airways, easyJet, Jet2, TUI Airways and Virgin Atlantic, has asked the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) for a “refund holiday” until the coronavirus pandemic is over.

Most carriers have closed down their operations almost completely as a combination of diminished demand and arbitrary flight restrictions make flying increasingly difficult.

Collectively, airlines are holding billions in fares paid for future journeys, which in most cases – at least in the UK and European Union – they are obliged to pay back when they cancel flights. The deadline set by European air passengers’ rights rules is seven days.

The airlines’ organisation said: “Carriers should also be permitted to issue vouchers instead of refunds.”

If the passenger insists on cash, rather than alternative flights, Airlines UK said: “Carriers should be permitted to defer payment.” But crucially, the airlines want the deadline to be defined by the volume of air traffic, rather than an specific time limit.

The European rules also applies for journeys on other carriers that begin in the UK or EU.

But giant international airlines, including Emirates and United, have announced global schemes that effectively mean grounded passengers are given an IOU repayable in a year. Travellers get a voucher to the value of their booking, but if they choose not to use it they are promised a full refund.

While Ryanair continues to provide an obvious online refund portal, British Airways and easyJet have chosen to disable the refund option from their websites – telling passengers to telephone to ask for their money back.

Meanwhile, travel agents in Scotland are demanding the UK government organises an airlift similar to the “Operation Matterhorn” organised by the Civil Aviation Authority after the failure of Thomas Cook in September 2019.

The Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association (SPAA) described the government’s repatriation advice as “futile, as there are now very few flights if any”.

The SPAA president, Joanne Dooey, said: “We understand that the Government faces a myriad of challenges in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, but it is useless for them to issue advice to return to the UK when it’s impossible to do so; and then to offer no help to those in this situation.

“We are urging the government to provide repatriation flights for these individuals.”

The SPAA, founded in 1921, is the world’s oldest organisation representing travel agents.

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