/ Travel & Leisure

Consumers should not have to prop up the travel industry

We don’t want to see the travel industry suffer further as a result of the pandemic, but it cannot be on consumers to prop up airlines and travel firms. Here’s why.

Why have Business Secretary Alok Sharma and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps remained silent over the scandal of travel firms denying refunds for coronavirus holiday and flight cancellations?

For nearly seven weeks since international travel was shut down, airlines and some tour operators have been hoarding billions of pounds in customer payments for holidays that are no longer happening – effectively interest free loans to get them through the crisis.

Most British holidaymakers are protected by legislation that entitles them to a refund within seven days for a flight or 14 days for a package holiday if their trip is cancelled.

Yet we found 20 of the biggest airlines and tour operators breaking the law by delaying or denying refunds. Many are doing it brazenly and in plain sight. And they’re getting away with it, with barely a peep of protest from the government or the regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority.

No-one wants to see these businesses collapse. Millions of us rely on them to help us get away for what might be the most enjoyable and relaxing week or two of our year.

But that does not mean it’s acceptable for millions of families and other travellers – who may be facing serious financial problems of their own due to coronavirus – to fund the travel industry through this crisis.

Your stories

We’ve heard from people out of pocket by more than £10,000 on a holiday of a lifetime and others who really need their £150 flight refund so they can pay this month’s bills. Many are understandably concerned about whether they will ever see their money again.

 
 

We’ve seen holiday companies wrongly telling customers that consumer protections have changed and they are no longer entitled to a refund. Some are forcefully pushing vouchers and credit notes on customers – even though these may prove worthless if the provider goes bust.

The major airlines have hardly covered themselves in glory. They are withholding money from their passengers, and also from holiday companies that need the cash to refund their customers.

British Airways passengers have been infuriated by the airline taking refunds offline and asking them to ring a phone number that plays a recorded message before hanging up on them. 

Ryanair customers have been bombarded with vouchers – even after making it crystal clear they are only interested in a refund. The airline has been through several iterations of its refund policy during the pandemic.

All of them have had one thing in common: no-one actually seems to get a refund.

People are also finding they are out of luck when they turn to their insurer or card provider in a last-ditch effort to get their money back. Insurers say the holiday firm or airline is responsible.

Some banks are rejecting debit or credit card dispute claims, leaving people wondering if anyone will help them.

In short, it is an unholy mess. And it’s not going to get better without urgent government intervention.

Support the industry, protect consumers

We’ve produced a 10-point plan for supporting the industry and protecting consumers – so that airlines and holiday firms can weather this storm without neglecting their legal obligations to customers.

We have shared it with the government and MPs on Parliament’s Transport Committee, who will be questioning industry representatives this morning.

The airlines hold the key to getting the system moving again and we believe ministers and the aviation regulator must start getting tough with carriers that are breaking the law or playing fast and loose with the rules.

Our proposals also include a temporary extension of the 14-day statutory refund period for package holidays to a maximum of a month, because we know operators face a challenge to process so many refunds with fewer staff available – but a cash refund must still be an option for those who want it.

The government must guarantee that the refund credit notes being offered instead of cash refunds are insolvency protected. But even with that reassurance, many will still want a refund and we have concerns that some firms are simply not in a position to honour their obligation to pay up.

That’s why we’re also calling for the creation of a temporary Government Travel Guarantee Fund, which would support holiday companies ordinarily in good health that are struggling to fulfil their legal responsibilities due to coronavirus cancellations.

The actions in our plan, taken together, are necessary to secure a return to a thriving UK travel sector as coronavirus restrictions are gradually lifted.

But unless action is taken now, there is a real risk of permanent damage to consumer trust and confidence in the travel industry. 

Comments

I am very pleased to see this Conversation and am delighted at its tone. It is a scandal to which the government has turned a blind eye and I am disappointed by the lack of vigour shown by the CAA in regulating the air travel industry.

Other intermediaries have also been a bone of contention, especially the on-line-only firms that set up and book holidays for people and then abandon them when things get sticky, and the travel agents who slavishly follow the dubious guidance issued by their trade organisation ABTA and refuse to look after their customers in accordance with their statutory rights. These companies earn enormous levels of undeclared commission and so should be protecting their clients [the customers] all the way through to the end and get them the refunds they are entitled to.

The Introduction said in relation to consumer’s reports “All of them have had one thing in common: no-one actually seems to get a refund.” That is not entirely correct. A number of correspondents to Which? Conversation have reported that Jet2 have been diligent about refunds and issued them promptly without demur. One or two other companies have also acted properly, but the generality of the remark unfortunately represents the usual experience.

We had great service from Jet2. They kept us up to date at all stages via email and offered three options – rebook for different dates, vouchers to use later or full refund. We took the refund and a it was paid three days before our holiday due date. We didn’t have to phone or email – just followed the instructions in their emails and they took care of everything within the timescale they had stated.

Chris Stuart says:
6 May 2020

You were lucky. I can’t get any sense out of Jet2 and can’t make an insurance cly

Giles says:
6 May 2020

Vouchers for flight costs do not protect consumers from the inevitable rise in ticket prices, if the airline continues trading. So not only are they illegally withholding refunds, they are unfairly protecting their own future profits by bullying consumers into having no choice but to top up difference or choose cheaper alternative.
If they offered a long term like for like option, I’m sure many would choose this option and of their own free will help airlines to continue trading.

Robert Steel says:
6 May 2020

I am booked with Wizzair to Budapest 29/05 to 3/06, these flights have not flown since 25/03. I booked a fully flexible fare, but they will only refund me with wizzair vouchers which are time bound. I did know these were the conditions, but these are not normal times. I have spoken to the call centre who tell me “the flight sabre not cancelled”
I explained that in the current climate, there is no way we will be flying in 3 weeks and the likely hood of flying in the coming but the call centre were having none of it.

I filled a complaint form, but there SLA is 30 days for response

Gill Riggs says:
6 May 2020

Yes – why do you ALWAYS feature about foreign holidays, when thousands of us holiday in the UK but you put so little importance to it. We are due to pay a balance with Sykes Holidays tomorrow, for a holiday we and they know we can’t take. It’s likely that they will take the pre-authorised payment from our credit card, despite us asking MBNA not to honour it.

Hi Gill, we have a guide dedicated to holidays within the UK here: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2020/03/coronavirus-how-are-my-uk-holiday-plans-affected/

And here’s the latest investigation into Sykes and other UK companies: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2020/05/coronavirus-are-holiday-letting-companies-using-unfair-terms-to-deny-refunds/

M Drew says:
6 May 2020

Received an email from BA stating my flight had been cancelled. an amended flight or voucher could be dealt with online. Unfortunately I had to ring the call centre for a refund . After ringing several times during the day and getting cut off. I managed to get through And requested a refund. I then had to fill in a form online for a refund for the BA seating I had reserved. A very frustrating day. Will hopefully get my money back within 30 days

Rosalind Russell says:
6 May 2020

Great Rail Journeys is refusing to refund the £6,700 we paid for a trip due to be taken in mid April for a specific event. In every email, they have pushed credit refund vouchers on us, but we cannot afford to bank roll the company for another year. We have consistently told them we will not accept the credit refund, but they ignore us and quote ABTA “guidance”. It is adding frustration and distress to an already upsetting situation. We no longer trust them. They suggested going to our holiday insurance firm, which promptly directed us back to the travel company. What are we do to?

Rosalind – ABTA has no official status. It is a trade representation body for travel agents and its guidance is only for its members. It has no legal validity in respect of travellers’ consumer rights. You should send Great Rail Journeys [sic] a formal written request for a refund.

The travel trade is trying to push liability onto insurance companies which, of course, are funded by their customers. Their collective conduct during this crisis is nothing short of despicable. I hope people will remember which companies were trustworthy and avoid the others.

I have a strong suspicion that ABTA’s tactics are to get the industry to block refunds so that customers will put pressure on their MP’s to get the government to bale out the airlines and other operators. Companies that treat their customers with contempt don’t deserve to survive – although nobody wants them to collapse before they have fulfilled their obligations towards their customers.

Steve says:
6 May 2020

100 day wait for Virgin Atlantic refund.

Lori Bisbey says:
6 May 2020

I am amazingly frustrated. I cannot get a refund on my flights and I know they will cost more next year. I don’t want vouchers – TAP is the airline. In addition, AirBnB has made it impossible to get a refund on the accommodation booked. They will postpone the stay but that assumes I will definitlely be travelling within 6 months which is no guarantee

Mel says:
6 May 2020

I am furious with British Airways. I have been a loyal customer for decades and the way they are dealing with this is appalling. I had some flights to Malaga cancelled for April. They offered a refund or a voucher. To get the refund you had to call their overloaded call centre. I couldn’t face it, so I decided to request the refund voucher, only to find that I got sent a brief email with a voucher code telling met that to book I need to call their flight booking line to use the voucher. Why oh why could they not allow us to just put this code into the discount code box that already exists and simply use it when we book our next flights online?

Surprisingly and on the contrary, really early on I had two flights with Ryanair from Thessaloniki to Bratislava which were canceled. I requested a refund and the money was back in my account within days. It seems Ryanair may have had a change of heart after paying out for the initial cancellations.

James says:
6 May 2020

Travel companies and hotel operators are hiding behind telephone lines that are not manned and intended to fraudently disarm those seeking legal recompense.The future response of the public to tour / hotel operators will be interesting and the latters own mess

Eleanor Smart says:
6 May 2020

Mark Warner are refusing to offer a refund and insisting we take a credit note for a family holiday that was supposed to happen in April. I sympathise with the travel companies but we are not in a position to accept a credit note. I have filled in a form to request a chargeback from my credit card (John Lewis/MasterCard)… I have no idea whether we will be able to get the money back.

Mrs M. Allbright says:
6 May 2020

i have 3 holidays booked with a local company two in this country and one to Germany in October, the first one I have been told I can take later this year, which I should have gone on next week, the second one I am due to pay in 2 weeks time do I just wait and see what happens or should I pay?

Charles Crawfurd says:
6 May 2020

I applied for a refund on 21st March for unused rail tickets and have not even had an acknowledgement from GWR despite repeated requests for action.
I am also been chasing TiF Claims, the underwriter for Insure and Ecape travel insurance over a claim for a refund on a cancelled ski holiday due to closure of Italy and just get delays and procrastination.It is very difficult to get to speak to anyone and emails get automated response or 2-3 weeks delay each time. Simply unacceptable.

Chris Stuart says:
6 May 2020

I was in Spain in mid March. The travel company who had arranged my holiday was shutting its operation as they had no new customers travelling out. They have been excellent and provided me with the necessary information to make a claim. The airline which I flew with, Jet2. sent me an email early Tuesday evening telling me that my return flight had been cancelled and telling me that there were to be repatriated flights the following day and on the Thursday. I had no choice but to ring and book a seat. I have a medical problem that meant i had to travel on the Thursday. I booked a seat at much extra cost and did not deduct the money I had originally paid for thr cancelled flight. The booking reference for the repatriation flight was the same as my cancelled flight. The acknowledgement of my booking was totally unintelligible. I requested on my return a full statement of the cost of the flight. The reply I got contained errors and when I sent my query as to their invoice I got an automated reply say it would take three weeks for the matter to be dealt with. I can’t make an insurance claim nor close this matter but they have the staff to take new bookings. I am disgusted .

Barrie Lane says:
6 May 2020

I feel I am being blackmailed by being told by Hays that if we do not pay the £13000 for the Cruise, some 6 weeks before we are scheduled to go, and for which I have paid a 10% deposit I will loose the deposit. This seems really unfair – no offers of vouchers or transferring the deposit to another cruise!

Graham Paterson says:
6 May 2020

Why do you exclude Eurostar from your criticism? They have 10 million plus passengers, so sizeable international operation. They’re behaving the same as many airlines…in spite of Passenger Rights legislation that stipulates a refund option.

Tony Martin says:
6 May 2020

I contacted Which, as a subscriber, to try and get them to highlight Eurostar failures to do the right thing. I was told that there was little interest in the Eurostar situation and they persist with concentrating on the Airlines. Which merely suggested that I subscribe to Which Legal at a cost of £29 registration and £9 per month. There is plenty of criticism of Eurostar on Trustpilot. I contacted my MP, Liz Truss, who contacted the CEO of Eurostar. He confirmed that customers are entitled to a refund under EU Regulation 1371/2017 where Eurostar cancel the service. Eurostar are only “officially” cancelling services no further in advance than 48 hours despite the fact that there are no published services to Amsterdam until 1 June.
Do not cancel your reservation and do not accept a voucher in any circumstances if you want your money back now or in the future.
I have some sympathy with travel companies but, like me, the customers will return when , and if, we return to some semblance of normality especially if they have done the right thing.

Hi Tony. Sorry to hear about this – I’m surprised to read about there being little interest in Eurostar cancellations. While our focus has been on airlines and package holidays that doesn’t mean other areas are excluded. I’ve taken a look, and it appears Eurostar is now offering cash refunds:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/05/eurostar-backtracks-over-coronavirus-cancellation-refunds-after-complaints

Have you made any progress since this was announced? If it’s still refusing then I can look to pick this up on Which? Conversation – if you email conversation.comments@which.co.uk and put FAO George Martin in the subject line it’ll find its way to me.

Likewise if you ever feel there are areas Which? isn’t/hasn’t covered then do let the Conversation team know – we can always pick up other areas more generally here.

Alex says:
7 May 2020

Hi George,

I managed to get a cash refund for my eurostar booking but they declined to refund the exchange fee I had paid to change the date of travelbefore the coronavirus crisis. They insisted it was not refundable even though it is part of the fare and Eurostar cancelled the train I paid the fee for.

Stewart says:
6 May 2020

We were due to fly to Cyprus on the 1st of April with Jet2 but the flights were, of course cancelled. When I checked online, I was offered the opportunity to rebook – I had to call for anything else. This seemed to me a way of avoiding paying the refund that I wanted. So I called them and waited on the phone for an hour before I spoke to a representative. So not happy so far.

However, the lady I spoke to was very friendly and efficient and said there would be no problem about refunding the money although it could take a couple of weeks. The payment actually appeared back on my credit card in a few days.

So, I feel they may be trying to avoid refunds but was very happy with their prompt payment.

James Courage says:
6 May 2020

Thank-you for taking up the consumers’ case. That major airlines hide behind unanswered phones that are the only route to a refund but offer vouchers on accessible web sites seems to be total contrary to customers rights. Likewise ticket agencies had copied the same approach inaccessible phone lines and promises of voucher – which then never arrive. What recourse do we have?

I have the return flight from St Lucia to London cancelled by British Airways but I booked via a trusted leading Travel agent. It seems to me that if I had booked direct by BA I would have more choice of dates to travel or would receive a voucher to rebook at my chosen date. BA will not answer passengers like me even in general terms.
The agent is being as helpful as he can.

Murray Collins says:
6 May 2020

Does anyone have trouble trying to find addresses for Tui and Ryan Air. Any help would be appreciated. As I paid in full for a trip to Malta and two days later Tory government shut everything down!!!
Any phone numbers or advice would be appreciated
Many thanks