Coronavirus and travel – who’s taking advantage?

It would be hard to find anyone not negatively affected in some way by the Coronavirus. Many people have seen their long saved for holiday plans disappear overnight. And many of these people are voicing their dissatisfaction with the poor response from their airlines.

aeroplane in the sky

Airlines – what are they doing about refunding?

Airlines are, in some cases, offering only credit notes and vouchers and at best saying that if, after the deadline of the credit note, customers want a refund then they can have one. But for many people this simply isn’t acceptable. They may now need the money to keep afloat as they can’t work, or it was going to be their last ever holiday etc. You are legally entitled to a full refund under the Flight Compensation Regulation, (EC) No 261/2004, and under IATA regulations for companies which are IATA members.

Whilst I accept that here may be a delay in administering refunds because of the huge increase in the amount of claims, I do not accept that airlines should try and get out of their legal duty.

What does the law say?

Under The Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018 you are entitled to the full refund within 14 days. But tour operators are struggling because they have not received their refunds from airlines and hotels. If they refund in full, with no incoming cash flow, they will go into administration and many consumers will not get their money back.

ABTA has said…

“The rules around 14 day refunds were never designed for the mass cancellation of holidays, which is why we are asking for more time for travel businesses to fulfil this requirement – customers will not lose their right to a refund, and their money is not at risk.”

Some companies are giving cash refunds, where possible. ABTA is working with Government as it looks for support and assistance to protect both businesses and consumers. It wants to strengthen the regulatory basis and extend the window for Refund Credit Notes. The European Commission has already relaxed its position on the regulations, and as a result many other EU countries including France, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Germany, The Netherlands and Denmark have taken action to amend their laws and/or provide additional guidance as a result of the crisis. The UK Government has yet to do anything in this regard.

ABTA is recommending that businesses offer and consumers accept a Refund Credit Note. This would, in effect, work as an IOU and the company should then refund in full (if the consumer does not want to rebook). It has said these should be dated up to 31st July 2020.

ABTA says “Strengthening the regulatory basis and extending the window for Refund Credit Notes, as a short-term alternative to cash refunds, will provide businesses with vital breathing space, whilst ensuring all consumer protections are carried forward.”

An ABTA spokesperson told me “While this unfortunately involves a delay for consumers receiving their money back or booking a replacement holiday arrangement, the alternative scenario is travel company failures and customers waiting even longer to receive their money.”

Some companies are incorrectly interpreting ABTA’s suggestions as guidelines. For example, the LoveHolidays website states “In line with ABTA guidance, for customers who have had ATOL-protected holidays cancelled due to the global Coronavirus outbreak, we are issuing an ATOL-protected refund credit note.”

Knock-on effects

The crisis and airlines attitude has indeed caused a number of other businesses and freelance travel consultants to be out of pocket and go into administration.

Linda Reynolds, a freelance personal travel agent, is currently working for no income. She is spending all her time trying to help her clients with refunds. She will actually end up not only losing all her income but possibly owing it too. This is because she receives commission for holidays one month prior to travel that is now no longer taking place. Where possible she is refunding what she can and trying to get airlines to honour their legal duty. She says to consumers wanting to get their money back from travel agent to “Please bear with us. Small companies are going bust trying to do the right thing. We often can refund part of the package but are waiting on the airlines who are refusing to give refunds.”

ABTA Chief Executive, Mark Tanzer, said “These are unprecedented times in the travel industry, and for the sector to come through it is vital that all parts of the chain respect their obligations. Governments have rightly identified the aviation sector as requiring emergency support, but funds provided must find their way to the passengers and corporate partners of the airlines – tour operators and travel agents – as the problem has moved down the chain. This is to the detriment of customers and the whole travel and tourism sector, at a time when co-operation is essential.”

Where is the airline regulator, CAA in all of this?

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is the regulatory body for airlines. When approached for comment regarding what it would do to ensure that airlines abided by the law, it referred me only to its website where the advice has not changed for some time and does not address the issue of airlines not providing refunds in full.

When pushed for what action it was taking to address the problem, a CAA spokesperson simply said “If an airline cancels a flight they are legally obliged to refund the customer.”

An ABTA spokesperson said: “We continue to stress in our discussions with the CAA, as the relevant enforcement body, that airlines are obliged to refund under Regulation 261 and under IATA regulations for IATA members.”

Deliberate delays in payments made by airlines?

It would appear that airlines are making it deliberately difficult for companies to gain refunds with relevant bodies taking little to no action. JetSet holidays provides services to travel agents. It too is having to hold out on paying agents as airlines aren’t refunding properly. John Bond, the JetSet Holidays CEO, has said it will do whatever it can to help agents. “Unfortunately many airlines are now asking for manual refunding which are sent offline to their offices, which by nature normally get looked at individually usually within 4-6 weeks. However, as airlines have probably furloughed 80% of staff, we can only imagine how long that refund will take to process!

Bond says:

“This has increased the workload and difficulty as many agents have closed their offices and further delays refunds in trying to contact each client.”This payment process is cumbersome and designed to delay the process of getting the money back to the customer.  He continues; “We would like all airlines to refund cancelled bookings in the usual automated manner through BSP [The IATA Billing & Settlement Plan acts as a communication hub, managing the whole ticketing, payments and reporting process between the travel agents and airlines] to make that easier and faster.

Air travel is likely to be cancelled for several more weeks yet but most airlines have only started this week to cancel flights for June 2020. So, during the next few weeks the airlines will be automatically be taking the balances for flights which they may then have to cancel, exacerbating this issue. The only way people will get a full refund is if they pay the balance for a holiday they know is very unlikely to go ahead.

The government needs to clarify the position on refunds immediately and      stop procrastinating.”

What are the airlines doing?

I asked several companies for a statement about full refunds. Many did not respond as of the time of publishing.

British Airways said “Customers on cancelled flights can take a voucher for future travel up to a year or a refund.” But it is insisting on consumers phoning for a refund on phonelines which are either busy or with very long delays

A spokesperson for EasyJet said “Customers on cancelled flights can transfer to an alternative flight free of charge or receive a voucher for the value of their booking online or claim a refund through our contact centre or by submitting a claim via a webform, online.”

A Norwegian Airlines spokesperson said that customers “… would be entitled to claim a refund, rebook or claim cashpoints to be used at a later date.” But again only a phone number is available for refunds.

A spokesperson for Etihad said “For tickets purchased within Europe or the United States (for Etihad flights cancelled before 31 July 2020 due to COVID-19 border closures), Etihad will also offer greater booking flexibility, Etihad Credit, or a refund if requested.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Ryanair appears to be offering full refunds. It did not respond to a request for a statement but people are getting refunds online although there have been problems with the website and there is a backlog. However, given the thousands of people who are using the site, this is understandable.

At the point of going to print a number of airlines are still not providing full refunds at all, including Lufthansa, Air France, Eurowings, Turkish, Middle East Airlines, Transavia and Emirates.

A spokesperson for Emirates said “We are allowing customers to keep their ticket for use up to any period 24 months from the date of the original booking, without the need to contact us. Alternatively, customers can opt for travel vouchers which can be easily processed on our website. These vouchers can be used against future Emirates flights within 12 months. If vouchers are not utilised after 12 months, they can still be brought to us for refunds.” When pressed on the question of whether it would fulfil its legal obligations and provide a refund when requested, a spokesperson said “The statement is all we have to share at this time.”

TAP Portugal is refunding travel agents but not individual customers. In fact it has even said that the vouchers it is offering for two years will not be refunded, so you MUST use them! A TAP Portugal spokesperson said that the airline “will convert the full amount spent on purchasing the ticket into a non-refundable two-year validity voucher that can be used on any other flight, as well as a 20% increase of the voucher amount. Alternatively, customers can reschedule their bookings for trips starting until May 31 and choose another flight to any destination, in which case TAP will offer an additional 25EUR/USD or 100EUR/USD discount on the fare difference. TAP is thus simplifying the resolution of problems involving our customers’ bookings by providing a much easier solution, one that is adapted to the evolution of the coronavirus outbreak and our customer’s needs.”

One wonders how this is “much easier” than simply giving a refund! Pressed for clarification on whether it would fulfil its legal obligations, it has not yet sent a response.

And what about travel agents?

It’s not just the airlines either. On the LoveHolidays website it says “In line with ABTA guidance, for customers who have had ATOL protected holidays cancelled due to the global Coronavirus outbreak, we are issuing an ATOL protected refund credit note.” This is not correct. These are NOT ABTA guidelines, these are merely suggestions. Should a customer want and request a full refund, one should be given. I approached LoveHolidays for a comment and at the point of publishing had not received one.

Hoppa which provides transfers changed its terms and conditions to deny cash refunds and only provide credit notes. I approached Hoppa for comment regarding breaching consumer law and at the point of publishing had not received a response.

What can I do now?

Of course it is understandable that travel companies and airlines with no current income will struggle with refunding money to customers. And, of course, most people would accept that there would be some delay in receiving their refund. However, it is not acceptable for companies to breach consumer law nor is it acceptable for the CAA as the regulatory body to do nothing about it.

So, what should you do if you have been affected by a company not abiding by the rules?

See Travel in the time of Coronavirus – Your rights explained where I answer all your questions.

Travel in the time of Coronavirus – Your rights explained

Coronavirus has brought chaos to the world. In its path consumer travel plans have been disrupted indefinitely, so what are your rights and what can you do when companies won’t play ball?

Aeroplane in sky with clouds

My flight was cancelled and the airline is only offering a credit note to be used on another flight. Do I have to accept it?

Many airlines are trying this trick. You are legally entitled to a full refund under Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 and under IATA regulations for companies which are IATA members. Some are offering vouchers or credit notes.

You do NOT have to accept this. However, do consider it if you can. The travel sector has obviously been hugely hit by this pandemic and there is a high risk of companies folding if they refund everyone immediately and it will help cashflow if they can retain some payments. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says that the sector is looking at a loss of $252bn (£202bn) should the lockdown last three months.

The CAA has not been clear on whether you will be covered by ATOL protection should the company fall into administration. However, if the voucher is worded correctly you will retain the ATOL cover should the airline fall into administration before you have used it. This means that even if the airline fails you will still get your money back. You should also be able to claim a refund if you cannot use the voucher and you should ensure that this is part of the agreement.

Bear in mind that you could be waiting a long time for a refund and if the company goes under that time will be even longer.

Some airlines are looking at giving an extra “Thankyou” for taking a voucher. Aer Lingus, for example, is giving 10% on top. Some will also make the voucher transferable, so you can give it to someone else. Explore what the company is offering and what you can negotiate!

Nor do you have to accept a change in date.

I am highly unlikely to travel.  How do I insist on a full refund?

Some airlines such as BA and EasyJet are insisting that you phone to get the refund and are not providing a system to do this online. One could be very cynical about why they have not undertaken the more cost-effective online process. However, the phone lines are extremely busy, having to deal with thousands more calls a day than normal.

So, you can hold on for hours while you get on with cleaning your home or something! Or you can beat them. Contact the CEO. Go to Ceoemail.com and find the email address for the CEO of your airline. You won’t get a response from the CEO but it will be received and dealt with as an escalated case.

Be assertive. Make it clear that under the aforementioned Regulations you are entitled to a full refund. Normally, I would say give it a time limit of 14 days at the most. However, one has to be reasonable and understand that they will have hundreds of thousands of requests, so although you can put this in, be flexible. State that if you do not get a refund you will go to the relevant ADR provider or CAA if the airline is not a member, or go to the Small Claims Court or claim under Section 75 if you paid by credit card.

If you get a rejection then contact your Credit Card provider as the company is in breach of the Law so you will get the money refunded and it will claim from the airline. You WILL need the evidence that the airline has refused the refund though, so make sure you get that in writing or evidence of them not responding by a deadline.

It is worth noting, however, that the CAA has very little information or help on its website saying only that airlines should be giving full refunds. It appears to be doing absolutely nothing to ensure they do.

I had a package holiday booked but the travel agent has only partially refunded. What can I do?

Many travel agents are refunding as quickly as they can. However, they are struggling to get airlines to refund them, so where possible are refunding other elements of the package with a view to refunding the flight when they can.

Strictly speaking they should be refunding in full but a number of travel agents have gone into administration. Linda Reynolds, a freelance personal travel agent, says to consumers wanting to get their money back from travel agents to “Please bear with us. Small companies are going bust trying to do the right thing. We often can refund part of the package but are waiting on the airlines who are refusing to give refunds.”

So, if you can, be patient with the travel agent, especially if they have already partially refunded you.

Shouldn’t the travel agent pay within 14 days though?

Normally, yes. Under The Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018 you are entitled to the full refund within 14 days. However see “I had a package holiday booked but the travel agent has only partially refunded – What can I do?” above.

ABTA has said :

“The rules around 14 day refunds were never designed for the mass cancellation of holidays, which is why we are asking for more time for travel businesses to fulfil this requirement -- customers will not lose their right to a refund, and their money is not at risk.”

ABTA wants to see changes in policy that would strengthen the regulatory basis and extend the window for Refund Credit Notes. It says on its website:

“The European Commission has already relaxed its position on the regulations, and as a result many other EU countries including France, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Germany, The Netherlands and Denmark have taken action to amend their laws and/or provide additional guidance as a result of the crisis.”

The UK Government has yet to do anything in this regard.

ABTA is recommending that businesses offer -- and consumers accept -- a Refund Credit Note. This would, in effect work as an IOU and the company should then refund in full (if the consumer does not want to rebook). It has said these should be dated up to 31st July 2020. It urges consumers to accept this and provides the following guidelines to ensure that you retain the ABTA/ATOL cover if the company fails.

Please be patient and work with the company rather than against them to protect both business and your own interests.

My travel company says I still have to pay the balance for a holiday due to be taken in July 2020 but I don’t want to go. What can I do?

Companies have grounded airlines and put a stop to all holidays to be taken from different dates. At the moment you will still be expected to pay the balance for any holiday that could, in theory, be taken. If you do not pay the balance you will be in breach of contract and will not be entitled to a refund of the deposit. As the weeks go by it is highly likely that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will extend the dates, effectively banning all non-essential travel and/or companies will extend the grounding and/or some countries will not be allowing flights into their country. When and if this happens you will then be entitled to a refund, as above.

Make sure you pay on a credit card to give you extra protection. You will be able to claim from the credit card company as advised above should a refund be rejected.

I have a holiday booked and paid for due to be taken later in the year. Can I get a refund?

The FCO has advised against all but essential travel indefinitely, so in theory you should be able to get full refunds. However, in reality, given the current situation, you will need to wait until nearer the due date to start the process for a refund.

You will be entitled to a full refund if you want it once the date has been confirmed as included dates where travel is stopped as above.

An event I was going to later in the year has been cancelled but it is possible that the flight will still go. Will I get the money back?

This depends on whether you booked the flights and accommodation separately. If you booked them together, as a package, then you will be covered under the Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements 2018 because the tour operator has made a “significant change” to the booking so you can accept an alternative or demand a full refund.

If you booked the flight separately it becomes more difficult. The event cost will be refunded but the airline will say that you could still travel and given the state of the sector airlines are unlikely to show goodwill! However, in theory, the event organiser should pay for consequential loss. In the UK this would be using the Consumer Rights Act 2015 but may prove more difficult in the EU and virtually impossible outside of it.

Take advice from the EU Consumer Centre regarding laws for each country.

Your travel insurance is unlikely to cover you but it is worth looking.

I have an underlying condition which makes me at greater risk of dying from coronavirus if holidays start again but I could be at risk. Am I more likely to get a full refund?

If the FCO says it is OK to travel to an area but you think it would still be dangerous for you, you can speak with the holiday provider and see if they would move the date, whilst waiving the change fee.

You can also look at your travel insurance and see the level of cover you have. Companies’ approaches to this will vary. Ensure you have all the evidence you can muster, including a letter from your doctor to help your case. You will have needed to have declared pre-existing conditions which you should always do anyway or you risk invalidating any insurance.

Each claim will be looked at on a case-by-case basis and if you are still not happy you could consider taking the matter to the Financial Ombudsman.

Can I book a holiday for later in the year?

How long is a piece of string? The whole travel sector is in a state of flux. Whether we can travel later in the year will depend on how the situation develops, how long the lockdown is extended, what countries remain closed to visitors and Government advice about countries to which it is safe to travel.

In addition, all the travel insurance companies will not cover you for coronavirus related claims for new policies. Even your annual policy is unlikely to cover you. If you have an annual policy, renew it without a break, as most will continue the same level of cover as you already have now.

Booking a holiday now is, sadly, a high risk activity.

I have booked flight and hotel separately -- What are my rights?

If the flight is cancelled please see the questions related to airlines. In theory, the airline could be liable for the consequential loss if the hotel is still open. In reality, you would probably have to go to court to try and get it and it would be a test case. That said, as there is no precedent, they may pay out to stop you opening the flood gates.

If the hotel is not open and the flight is still running the same argument applies. In theory, the hotel could be liable for the consequential loss. It would be harder to fight if it is in another country but you could take advice from the EU Consumer Centre about the relevant laws.

I had a holiday booked in this country but the company is refusing a refund

You are entitled to a full refund if your booking is cancelled under the Consumer Rights Act 2015.

I had a ferry crossing booked can I get a refund?

If your ferry service is cancelled or departure is delayed for more than 90 minutes, you are entitled to either an alternative sailing at the earliest opportunity at no additional cost or reimbursement of the ticket price which normally should be paid within seven days. But again please allow for delays with this repayment.

Am I entitled to any compensation for cancelled travel arrangements?

Normally in certain circumstances yes. See What to do when your flight is delayed – the full guide but it is not given when the delay or cancellation is due to extraordinary circumstances. I don’t think it is possible to have more extraordinary than the current situation.

I want to help the country to get back on its feet and be able to go on holiday as soon as possible how do I do that?

The only way you can help to get us back to normality sooner is to reduce the risk of spread of the virus and protect the NHS.

STAY AT HOME. Do NOT make non-essential journeys to anywhere and when out for your one piece of exercise or shopping for essentials keep at least 2m distance. And, unless you are a key worker, do not use public transport and stay the hell at home!

Social distancing: The credibility and equality gaps public transport issues

Coronavirus and travel – who’s taking advantage? details on  the CAA, ABTA, agents and individual airlines the good the bad and the downright  illegal.

What to do when your flight is delayed – the full guide full breakdown of your rights and template letter.

Why are people still not staying at home?

See Coronavirus related cancelled and postponed events your rights

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All you need to know about booking/complaining about holidays/flights/travel

 

 

 

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For more advice, tips and templates for complaining  see GET THE BOOK! How To Complain: The ESSENTIAL Consumer Guide to Getting REFUNDS, Redress and RESULTS!