Aer Lingus fails to deliver service on cancelled flights

Passengers still waiting in the dark for months on vouchers and refunds

If Aer Lingus sees customer service as one of its unique selling points over rivals – as it has done until now – it has a lot of lost ground to make up. Photograph:  Cathal McNaughton/ Reuters

If Aer Lingus sees customer service as one of its unique selling points over rivals – as it has done until now – it has a lot of lost ground to make up. Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/ Reuters

 

I read your article about Aer Lingus struggling to resolve its ticket refund fiasco. I am still waiting on a voucher request from July 15th. I made three calls (in August, October and November) attempting to convince Aer Lingus to complete my request.

From your article it seems my case is falling under “complex in nature” since I originally paid a 50 per cent deposit on the fare, then paid the remaining 50 per cent at a later date.

Regardless, it’s now five months since the original request and I’m starting to have my doubts. I thought I would reach out to you regarding this. Have you any guidance, or any hope?

Mr M.D., email

Aer Lingus has managed to turn a crisis into a public relations disaster. And I simply don’t understand why.

It appears, belatedly, that some lessons are being learned but significant unnecessary reputational damage has been done.

It was good to see on Monday that both Aer Lingus and Ryanair were quick to come out and clarify the options for travellers caught up in the latest Covid chaos as flights to Ireland out of the UK were shut down.

They made it quite clear that people whose flights were cancelled were entitled to a cash refund in line with European consumer rights legislation – with Ryanair offering the alternative of a “free move” to another flight.

The airlines also clarified that they would facilitate people who did not want to travel even if their flights were still scheduled in switching to a later date.

What’s not clear is how long people whose Christmas plans are unravelling will be waiting for their refunds. If the experience of intending passengers from earlier in the crisis is anything to go by, it will be some time.

A large number, like you, are still waiting for refunds or vouchers for flights that were booked almost a year ago and were due to take off five months or more ago. Many paid substantial sums of money – well over €1,000 for US trips – and Aer Lingus has had free use of that money for the best part of a year while you wreck your head trying to get through a unresponsive bureaucracy.

Resolution

You appear to be one of the 26,820 bookings still awaiting resolution, according to figures given to me by Aer Lingus in recent days.

Aer Lingus says it has received in excess of 660,000 requests for refunds and vouchers since Covid “caused by an unprecedented level of flight cancellations”.

This last part is certainly true but, given that Aer Lingus told me as far back as September that it had “received in excess of two million refund and voucher requests since the Covid-19 pandemic” and had processed 1.8 million vouchers and refunds by that point, there’s clearly something badly awry with whoever is doing the sums out at the airline.

It does nothing to reassure consumers about the credibility of the airline’s actions in managing what clearly was an overwhelming crisis back in March/April and calls into question whether, even at this late stage, they know the true scale of the issue.

Aer Lingus check-in desks at Terminal 2 in Dublin Airport. The airline told staff last week that it was cutting pay by 50 per cent. Photograph: Tom Honan
Aer Lingus check-in desks at Terminal 2 in Dublin Airport in March, early in the pandemic. File photograph: Tom Honan

Be that as it may, the airline tells me it is currently processing 8,000 requests a week and is 93 per cent complete on refund processing and 98 per cent complete on voucher processing.

At 8,000 a week, it would take more than 18 months to sort out in full, so the assumption is that most of the queries now being dealt with – apart from some made only recently – are what the airline considers more complex.

These include bookings made using Avios points, flights that had already been rebooked, and those using multiple forms of payments, presumably including yours where you paid a deposit and subsequently cleared the balance.

“We have 26,820 refunds/ vouchers still outstanding,” a spokeswoman said. “Of that total, 18 per cent are older than three months. More than 45 per cent of the requests for those vouchers were received in the last six weeks.”

And when can people reasonably expect their cases finally to be resolved?

“Our team is working hard to close off all requests that were made up to the end of October by the end January, and [to] have all backlogs cleared by end-February,” the airline told me in a statement.

To be fair, this predated the sudden move to ban all flights from the UK for at least two days in the busy run-up to Christmas. Handling refund requests for those passengers will presumably stretch the timeline out further.

Depressingly, there are more than 2,000 requests outstanding from July or earlier months. Of these, 310 are requests for refunds and 1,737 are seeking vouchers, according to the airline.

Vouchers

That raises another issue. Many people were persuaded to take vouchers on the basis that they could be processed more quickly than refunds at a time when airlines were actually seeking government support to shelve EU consumer rights and refuse refunds in order to allow airlines preserve cash at what was a very uncertain time for the industry.

But nine months after the crisis emerged, more than 1,700 are waiting close to five months for those vouchers. And when, fed up, they say they now want a cash refund rather than a voucher, they are stonewalled and told they cannot change their choice – even though the airline has clearly failed to meet any reasonable expectation for processing the vouchers.

Over at Ryanair, vouchers were issued to pretty much everyone but the airline says all passengers were told by email – and reminded by subsequent email if the vouchers had not been used – that they had the option of using the vouchers or exchanging them for a cash refund.

Ryanair tells me that even now, months after some people received vouchers, they can still be swapped for cash.

Reputation

The irony is that Aer Lingus has had, until this year, a stellar reputation, helped perhaps by the, at times, hardball customer service approach of rival Ryanair. Traditionally, passengers have been fulsome in praise for the airline, overlooking little niggles that might otherwise irritate.

And all it really had to do to retain that vaunted position was to proactively come out and talk to its customers. Regardless of which of the airline’s own very different figures for voucher and refund requests you accept, it is understandable that responding to every individual query might overwhelm an online system – at lest initially.

But could airline executives not have come out to explain on air and in print what was going on, why it was taking longer than expected and when people might reasonably expect a response and, more importantly, resolution?

And could they not more quickly and efficiently have bolstered their customer services teams to handle both the requests and the queues of disgruntled passengers?

It’s been an annus horribilis for the airline. This column has received more than 250 queries on the issue – more than any other single issue down the years. If Aer Lingus sees customer service as one of its unique selling points over rivals – as it has done until now – it has a lot of lost ground to make up.

Whether it is 660,000 or two million, that’s a lot of disappointed passengers for a country this size. And leaving a large portion of them sitting in the dark for months at a time is a poor advertisement for a business.

Please send your queries to Dominic Coyle, Q&A, The Irish Times, 24-28 Tara Street, Dublin 2, or email dcoyle@irishtimes.com. This column is a reader service and is not intended to replace professional advice. No personal correspondence will be entered into.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.