As the coronavirus pandemic brings travel to a near-standstill worldwide, millions of passengers have had their flights cancelled.
Under normal circumstances, getting a refund would be a fairly straightforward task. However, with revenue close to zero, the big airlines serving UK passengers have made it more difficult to obtain a full refund.
Many carriers are heavily pushing customers to accept credit vouchers or to rebook for future travel instead.
Here’s everything you need to know if you’re trying to get your money back.
What are the rules on refunds for cancelled flights?
European air passengers’ rights rules, known as EU261, apply to all flights from the UK and European Union, and any flight on an EU or UK airline.
However, amid the mass grounding of aircraft, UK airlines are lobbying for a relaxation of the regulations that would mean they could defer payment.
Airlines UK, representing British Airways, easyJet, Jet2, TUI Airways and Virgin Atlantic, has asked the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for a “refund holiday” until the pandemic is over.
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.”
As yet, this suggested rule change has not been approved, meaning travellers are still entitled to their money back within the stipulated seven-day period.
Canada has already changed its rules on mandatory refunds. 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.”
Meanwhile, United Airlines has stopped issuing cash refunds, swapping this for a scheme that effectively mean grounded passengers are given an IOU repayable in a year. Travellers get a voucher equal to the value of their booking, but if they choose not to use it they are promised a full refund in 365 days’ time.
How can I get a refund from Ryanair?
Initially, Ryanair was offering a straightforward online form to fill out in order to secure a refund for a cancelled flight: refundclaims.ryanair.com/
But now it has made an about-turn, sending passengers who asked for a refund a voucher instead, and saying: “This amount can be used for the purchase of Ryanair flights and other services at any time over the next 12 months.”
One passenger, Jamie Bowden, who was booked on a Ryanair service from Italy to Armenia on Monday, said: “Click on the link to ‘get a refund’ and you get, ‘Vouchers, please have a voucher, any colour any time you want but please just have a f****** voucher’.”
A spokesperson for Ryanair told The Independent: “For any cancelled flight, Ryanair is giving customers all of the options set out under EU regulations, including refunds.”
The Civil Aviation Authority is responsible for enforcing the European air passengers’ rights rules. The Independent has asked the CAA if it will take enforcement action against Ryanair or other carriers.
Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said: “Ryanair has wasted the time of thousands of customers who have spent days filling out refund forms only to be fobbed off with a voucher instead.
“We need to see the government urgently produce a plan that supports the travel industry through this crisis and ensures that peoples’ money and future travel plans are protected.”
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How can I get a refund from British Airways?
However, unlike many other carriers, BA is continuing to fly, with a skeleton service running to and from Heathrow airport.
For those whose flights have been cancelled, BA has removed the option of being able to submit a simple refund claim form on its website.
Instead, it takes you through to a page where you can claim an online credit voucher, valid for travel within 12 months of your original departure date.
To obtain a cash refund, customers must ring up the airline on 0800 727 800 from within the UK, or +44 (0)203 250 0145 from abroad.
However, BA says: “Call volumes are extremely high at the moment due to the unprecedented circumstances so please bear with us if it takes some time for us to help with your booking.”
Customers have a full year from the date of the cancelled flight in which to call and claim a refund.
How can I get a refund from easyJet?
EasyJet announced on 30 March that it was stopping all commercial flights and grounding all its 337 Airbus aircraft across Europe.
Initially, the carrier removed the automatic 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.
But now it has reversed its decision and re-installed the online option for a refund. You can find the form here.
What if I booked through a travel agent?
If you booked flights through a travel agent that have now been cancelled, things become slightly trickier. There is no point in contacting the airline direct, as your contract is with the third party agent.
Contacting them is the only way of getting your options – however, again, The Independent has heard reports of travel agents pushing clients to accept a voucher instead of a refund.
One reader said: “I have made numerous telephone calls to both agents and requested the return of my monies. All I get in response to this is an offer of a credit note.”
Customers are still within their rights to demand their money back, but be warned: many third party sites will take off a fairly substantial administration fee (in the region of £65 in some cases) for processing the refund. For larger sums, they should be challenged for what appears to be "unjust enrichment".
What if I’m still stranded abroad?
The government has announced a £75m airlift for British nationals stuck around the world. In some cases, chartered rescue flights are not being offered, and passengers must try to book on the scant commercial flights available (such as on PIA services operating from Pakistan).
If you’re booked onto a flight that’s cancelled, it’s usually better not to accept a refund as it is then still the airline’s responsibility to get you home.
“Passengers whose flights are cancelled should be able either to obtain reimbursement of their tickets or to obtain re-routing under satisfactory conditions, and should be adequately cared for while awaiting a later flight,” say the EU regulations.
However, in many cases, airlines are announcing they’re grounding their entire fleets – if no commercial flights are available, get in touch with the British embassy or high commission in the country you’re in to let them know you still need help.
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