Aer Lingus flight changes lead to confusion on refunds

Q&A: Dominic Coyle answers your personal finance questions

The airline statement said: “Aer Lingus customers with bookings that have been impacted by a schedule change of over two hours, are entitled to a full refund.” Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

The airline statement said: “Aer Lingus customers with bookings that have been impacted by a schedule change of over two hours, are entitled to a full refund.” Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

 

I have two flights booked with Aer Lingus to New York in mid-September. I received an email saying that flights had been rescheduled, another saying if this did not suit I could rebook or have vouchers, and yet another saying I could apply for a cash refund.

As I already have two vouchers for cancellation of the same trip in May, I was delighted to see I could get my money back. But, on checking the paperwork for refund, it appears that only business class can get refund but not economy.

The paperwork says the company can do this legally. Is there any loophole or way around this? Apart from the major disappointment of the two cancellations, I am considerably out of pocket.

Ms M.C. email

It’s been a really trying time for airlines and their passengers since Covid-19 struck. All sorts of personal plans have been thrown into tumult.

You clearly had strong reasons to want to travel to the United States despite the ongoing issues with Covid and the necessity to quarantine on your return – so much so that you have booked this trip not once but twice.

On the first occasion, flying was clearly impossible as the lockdown meant any leisure travel was barred and most flights were grounded. You accepted vouchers on that occasion but, as many people who had booked flights discovered, these took an awful long time to arrive.

In the meantime, with September looking like a suitably long way away, you decided to book again, not least because you were concerned that once everyone got their vouchers, there could be a rush on rebooking which could push up the price of tickets.

With people desperate to get some sort of break after the lockdown, there was always a likelihood that ticket prices – like staycation accommodation rates – could jump sharply as demand soared. Who was to know back when you booked these September flights that day-to-day living would still be quite so restricted at this time.

Now these flights, too, have been disrupted.

Consumer protection

There are strong consumer protections in place for people whose air travel plans are disrupted. But these have come under pressure during the coronavirus crisis as airlines understandably struggle with cashflow.

As my colleague Conor Pope has reported, the Government even lobbied the European Commission to allow consumer rights to be watered down so that airlines and travel companies would be allowed to offer credit notes instead of the cash refunds to which travellers are legally entitled.

That didn’t work out for the Government or the industry as the Commission, fortunately, said no. The idea that consumer rights might exist only in the absence of a crisis would have been a poor precedent for the European Union to set.

As it happens, and as Conor reported, the Government then introduced new rules to make vouchers more attractive with the promise they would come with a Government-backed guarantee.

But you are still entitled to a cash refund and you don’t need to rely on any loophole to secure it. And, in your case, with two significant vouchers already in hand, the last thing you wanted was more of the same. As you say, you now have a substantial amount of money tied up in Aer Lingus flights as you had to pay for this second set of tickets before the vouchers arrived for the first, cancelled trip.

I haven’t seen the paperwork that you received. You note that you received a succession of emails, the first alerting you to changes in the flight schedule and subsequent ones offering you the options of rebooking, accepting more vouchers or taking a cash refund.

You say the paperwork relating to refunds suggested this was available only to customers with premium tickets and not to those who had booked economy.

If true, as you pointed out in your letter this would have been deeply unfair, not least as those travelling business class were more likely frequent fliers than their economy class counterparts and more likely to have the chance to use vouchers.

I asked Aer Lingus about that. They didn’t address the wording of the conditions around their refund policy but, to be fair, they came back very quickly with an assurance that you would get your money back.

In a statement, the airline said: “Aer Lingus customers with bookings that have been impacted by a schedule change of over two hours, are entitled to a full refund.”

That seems clear enough. It says something about how convoluted and legal the wording of terms and conditions can be that you, as a customer, could have been confused by the wording of the refund policy in whatever email was initially sent out to you. If they had simply stated the above, point, ends, no one could be confused.

The statement continues by advising that refund requests should be submitted to the airline’s customer relations team through a web form on its website aerlingus.com.

Of course, this trend towards dealing with customer relations through anonymous web interfaces rather than by personal contact ignores the fact that there are still many people who – for reasons of age or otherwise – are not comfortable with computers and its very remote and rigid customer service model.

I understand of course that airlines, like all businesses, are consistently working to be more efficient but it strikes me that the lack of human interaction is creating all sorts of problems for the reputations of customer-facing companies like the utilities and banks, and airlines, when it comes to consumer service.

And that is even more pronounced in a crisis like our current one, where people tend to be more stressed and, with a huge jump in the numbers out of work, money is more of an issue.

Anyway, the good news is that Aer Lingus has assured me that a full refund has now been processed for this latest set of tickets. The money, they tell me, should be back in your bank account by the middle of this week.

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.

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