At a time when a health and economic crisis has hit the world, we are hearing of some companies that are taking advantage and not adhering to their legal obligations. Whilst the majority of businesses are doing the right thing by their customers, many are not. They are hoping that consumers do not know their legal rights or believe that consumer rights don’t apply in this situation, when they most certainly do!
Another sector not playing by the rules is wedding venues.
Hotels, that are also often hired for weddings, have, of course, had to cancel events due to COVID-19. The consumer is not cancelling, the venue is, so the venue is in breach of contract and should make a full refund. However, a number of them are charging a cancellation fee, stating that it is in their terms and conditions. The venue is cancelling, so this could be deemed an unfair contract term and condition under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPUTRs) and the Consumer Rights Act 2015.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is closely monitoring businesses through this period. It has the power to open a consumer enforcement if it finds strong and compelling evidence that the law might have been broken and can call on the company or companies to change their behaviour by committing to formal undertakings or promises. If they refuse, then the case can be taken to court. It is asking consumers to report price hikes or making misleading claims about their products and services. Its report published 24 April 2020 stated that:
“• As of 19 April, the CMA had received just under 21,000 COVID-19 related complaints, of which 14,000 have come via its dedicated online form.
• The CMA has written to 187 firms accounting for over 2,500 complaints about large price rises for personal hygiene products, such as hand sanitiser and food products.
• Complaints relating to cancellations and refunds now account for 4 out of 5 complaints being received.”
A spokesperson for the CMA said “CMA will not hesitate to take enforcement action if there is evidence that businesses have breached competition or consumer protection law.”
So what can you do if you have booked and paid for a venue and it is now refusing to refund you?
2) In the current circumstances it would help to support businesses if you accepted a new date for the event, at no extra cost, if you can. But this should be like for like. For example a weekend date for a weekend or a partial refund if it is a weekday.
Update July 2020. As weddings start to start again…! This is the KEY thing. It has to be like for like. So although it may have been clearer before (i.e. it couldn’t go ahead) it still stands. IF you booked for X and you can only do Y (e.g. fewer guests) you ARE entitled to a full refund or like for like postponement.
3) If you are not able to do this, state that you require a full refund under the Consumer Rights Act 2015, as the company is in breach of contract.
4) Include in your email the date by which you expect to hear back from them and what you will do if you do not receive a satisfactory response.
6) If they are relying on any unfair terms and conditions such as unrefundable deposit then quote from the CPUTRs (link above).
7) If you do use Section 75 and are refused take the case to the Financial Ombudsman.
8) If you have wedding insurance you could also try using this and if you have difficulty take the matter to the Financial Ombudsman. However, it is worth noting that insurance is there if YOU cancel. The Insurance company is likely to correctly say that the venue should be paying up. It may get more complicated for other services regarding the wedding!
9) Once Government advice is that wedding venues can run as normal and offer you the same service as you booked e.g. for 200 guests and 200 are allowed then you will need to go ahead or forfeit any costs as it will be you changing your mind and breaking the contract. In these circumstances you insurance may cover you as it is there for if you not the venue cancels.
10) I am amazed by the number of people who have contacted me all of whom are taking up my time and asking for my expert help for free without a “Please” or a “Thank you”. When you try and negotiate with a venue or are asking anything of anybody manners go a long way!
This advice goes for all the associated services too!
Coronavirus - how to ensure you gain redress when a venue cancels
It is outrageous that companies are treating customers this way. Ultimately it will backfire, as now more than ever consumers are taking note of which companies are doing the right thing by their customers and which ones are not.
Wedding venues and insurance getting refunds
Businesses can take advantage of Government schemes, such as furloughing staff, and business grants and not least insurance if they properly protected themselves. But the consumer has no such cover. Consumers can only rely on the law and the law should be upheld.
Ultimately only a court can decide if a company is in breach of consumer law. However, it is unlikely any company in breach of contract would want to go to court and let the flood gates open….”
Covid – who is doing what and what are your rights?
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.
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.”
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.” Numerous requests for details on any action it will take and if vouchers will be covered if the airline goes into administration have gone unanswered.
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.”
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!
“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?
“Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said: ‘We do not want to see the industry suffer further as a result of this outbreak, but it cannot be on consumers to prop up airlines and travel firms, especially when so many maybe in difficult financial situations of their own.’
People need to know that they can trust the travel industry to treat them fairly, so we’ve launched a 10-point plan of what we want to see the travel industry and government doing to protect consumers during this unprecedented crisis.
We are calling for:
All eligible customers to be offered a cash refund
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to extend its travel advice to a specific date, rather than leaving it open-ended
Travel insurance terms and conditions to be made more transparent and clear.”