Some of the UK's largest tour operators and airlines have been accused of continuing to breach the law on refunds for canceled vacations and flights during the coronavirus pandemic, despite reassuring aviation authorities that it would remedy the situation.
Consumer organization Which? Ryanair, Virgin Atlantic and Tui were among those who continued to fail to reimburse passengers within agreed deadlines, in breach of recent commitments to the Civil Aviation Authority.
With ongoing concern that airlines have withheld billions in refunds, they are grappling with the worst financial crisis their industry has ever faced.
Vacation companies should offer refunds within 14 days, while airlines are seven days, but many consumers waited months after trips were canceled due to the coronavirus.
Last week, the CAA said it found that airlines have improved their game in terms of providing refunds after reviewing refund policies and the performance of UK airlines and three of the UK's largest international operators.
Which? There are now signs that airlines are "declining" promises to improve their refund processes, including by some passengers that have been left out of their pockets since March. The results come after the CAA reviewed airline behavior and identified several airlines that did not pay the refunds "sufficiently quickly" but chose not to take enforcement action after receiving commitments from airlines to perform to improve.
Virgin Atlantic was the only airline to face enforcement actions due to delays in processing refunds for canceled flights.
Which? found that Ryanair, Tui, and Virgin – all identified by the CAA as not processing fast enough – were failing to deliver on promises they made to the regulator, leading Which? that the regulator's enforcement powers "may not be appropriate".
The consumer organization is now calling on the government to expand the CAA's existing powers so that it can "take action more easily and more sensibly against airlines that have repeatedly been exposed for disregarding the law and their passengers in the course of the pandemic".
The CAA told Ryanair that it was not satisfied, that refunds took 10 weeks or more to process, and that airlines offering coupons should also offer passengers the option of a cash refund. After review by the regulator, Ryanair posted a promise on its website that all refund requests would be approved by the end of May through July 31.
But which one? said it had heard from Ryanair passengers who are still waiting for refunds from March and are still trying to get cash refunds after originally receiving vouchers despite requesting cash refunds.
Virgin Atlantic informed the CAA that the maximum waiting time for refunds is 120 days, but what? Some passengers have been trying to get refunds from the airline for more than four months. The consumer champ heard from two passengers who waited over 130 days for refunds on flights that were canceled in March.
Tui was reprimanded by the CAA for issuing vouchers and making customers wait another 28 days before claiming their money back. Tui told the CAA that "cash refunds are processed within 14 days on average".
But which one? Although Tui informs the regulator that vouchers will no longer be automatically issued, Tui states on its website that customers must wait for a voucher before they can request a cash refund. Which? heard from a passenger who hasn't even received the voucher that they need to request their refund – or received some other notice from Tui – after their flight was canceled in April.
Following its review, the CAA stated that a number of airlines have committed to reducing the time it takes to process refunds without the need for enforcement action and to continue monitoring these airlines and pushing for further improvements.
A Which? The spokesman said: "We are concerned that if airlines are allowed to keep breaking the reimbursement law openly during this crisis, they will set a precedent in which airlines continue to treat passengers unfairly without fear of consequences or sanctions."
"Airlines have repeatedly received the benefit of the doubt, but some have indifferent to the regulator's efforts to secure voluntary commitments. It is clear that more needs to be done to empower the CAA to effectively hold airlines accountable to pull. "
Kirsty Ness, a teacher from Edinburgh, is among those who have raised concerns about the consumer organization. She requested a cash refund from Ryanair immediately after canceling her flights at the end of March. On April 20, she received a voucher instead.
She says she called Ryanair several times to redeem the voucher but has not yet received her refund.
Which? Believes that there should be a series of reforms for the travel industry to ensure the future of UK international travel and restore consumer confidence in the sector.
Rory Boland, which one? The tour guide said: “Again and again, which one? has exposed airlines that are violating the law on refunds for canceled flights due to the pandemic and treating their passengers unfairly, and we are concerned that they now feel empowered to do what they want without fear of punishment.
“Passengers need to be able to rely on a regulator with effective powers to protect their rights – especially in times of unprecedented turmoil. The government needs to step up and ensure that the CAA has the tools in place to hold airlines accountable or run the risk of irreparably damaging consumer confidence in the travel industry. "
A Tui spokesperson said, “Customers with canceled flight bookings scheduled to depart before July 11th were given vouchers for refund credits and were then able to request a cash refund using our online form. These refunds were processed within 28 days.
“Customers with canceled flight bookings who are scheduled to depart on July 11th will automatically receive a cash refund. These refunds will be processed within 14 days.
"We're really sorry for customers who may have experienced delays in getting their refund."
A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson added, "The tremendous volume of refund requests we have received, along with the restrictions on our teams and systems during the pandemic, has meant that refunds have taken longer than usual to process and we apologize us sincerely for it.
"Since April, we've focused on making improvements wherever possible. We've grown the refund processing team five times, with more than 200 people now directly involved. This has our capacity to process a larger number of people increased. " Refunds faster and we continue to minimize the waiting time for existing refund requests. "Thanks to the progress made, we are steadily reducing the maximum processing time for each new refund from Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays."
The results came after the CAA reviewed airline behavior and identified several airlines that were not paying the refunds “quickly enough” but chose not to take enforcement action after receiving commitments from airlines to perform improve.
The CAA said it will examine any additional evidence from the consumer organization.
"While our initial review was complete, we knew we would continue to monitor performance. Should an airline fail to meet its commitments to us, we will take further action as necessary."
Ryanair said, “Ryanair has spent more than € 750 million in refunds, vouchers and free moves. We have cleared over 90% of the arrears in cash and are making rapid progress in clearing any remaining reimbursement requests.
"We urge the CAA to take urgent action against unauthorized third-party screen scrapers and to ensure that they provide us with real customer information.
"Thousands of our customers are still being prevented from getting their refunds due to unauthorized third-party screen scrapers providing Ryanair with fake email addresses or virtual credit card details that do not belong to our customers. Any customer dealing with an unauthorized third party Party Screen Scraper should contact Ryanair directly. "