Aer Lingus refund delays leave passengers angry

Q&A: Dominic Coyle answers your personal finance questions

Last week’s query on Aer Lingus passenger refunds has sparked a wave of emails from readers. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne

Last week’s query on Aer Lingus passenger refunds has sparked a wave of emails from readers. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne

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I read your article last week where you said Aer Lingus are giving refunds. I’ve been months asking for refund instead of voucher and they have said, no, it’s not possible.

I had booked initially for July, then opted to rebook for August instead of taking a voucher. Then the flight was changed by a full day and I was told I would only get tax back in a refund as I had booked Saver flights. This is outrageous

Ms TQ, email

You’re right. If that is what you were told, it is. Not least because I have been assured on several occasions and by different people in Aer Lingus that the type of ticket has no bearing on whether you can get a refund.

Last week’s query on passenger refunds has sparked a wave of emails from readers both here and in the United States who are clearly at their wit’s end in trying to secure refunds, or vouchers, from the airline. One person has been waiting for six months, they tell me.

In an effort to answer as many of the queries as possible, we will break with our usual pattern and try to address several related questions in this piece.

In fairness, it must be acknowledged that coronavirus has been a disastrous time for airlines. Widespread travel restrictions have meant not only that most flights were grounded for an extended period but also that people abandoned all bar essential future travel plans amid uncertainty over future restrictions and of the path of the virus itself.

In the absence of normal business, airlines have had to turn to State supports while also cutting staff or putting them on shorter time.

But, all too often in the chaos, passengers feel that they have been forgotten.

Aer Lingus, in its defence, says that it “has added additional resources to our teams and introduced new technologies to improve processing times”. It says that “to date in excess of 90 per cent of the requests received have been processed” with those remaining “typically more complex”.

That may be so but some of the queries we have received do not seem overly complex and it is clear that some of the information people have been given – where they have been given any information at all – is simply wrong.

In the case of Ms TQ, whose case the airline are still investigating, a spokeswoman for Aer Lingus has once again stated categorically: “The type of ticket does not influence someone’s entitlement to a refund.”

So the fact that someone is on a Saver ticket – a discounted economy ticket, I gather – should not in any way preclude them getting a refund if they otherwise meet the criteria.

Last week, I was told those criteria were as follows: “Aer Lingus customers with bookings that have been impacted by a schedule change of over two hours, are entitled to a full refund.”

Seems straightforward. Unfortunately, the experience of Ms TQ and others seems to show that has not proved to be the case thus far.

Four months

Other queries seem equally straightforward. Ms OD has been waiting for over four months for a credit voucher from Aer Lingus. She has been in touch with the call centre “numerous” times and has been told the voucher is coming soon but that has been the position for months now, she says.

With the airline now processing refunds, she wonders how long more she will have to wait?

The good news is that Aer Lingus tells me your booking “has been refunded” – I assume that means the voucher has been processed – and you should receive it in the coming days.

The issue here appears to be that the tickets were booked through the Avios loyalty rewards programme which allows you build up points to apply against ticket prices when you shop in certain stores and when you buy tickets. Apparently this means the voucher/refund request had to be processed by both Aer Lingus and Avios, compounding the delay.

No communication

Ms J McD on the US west coast says she is still waiting for a refund for a flight that was cancelled over a month ago. Her particular frustration is that she has not been able “to get through to a live person”.

This is a recurring frustration for passengers. They are being directed to file refund applications online and cautioned against submitting multiple requests.

And there appears to be absolutely no way of inquiring about the state of play with an ongoing refund or voucher application even when weeks or months have passed with no information.

This is not reasonable customer service regardless of the pressure the airline is under. They could, reasonably, set a time – say one month – and say that they are not in a position to handle follow-up queries within that window.

But it is only fair that once you get further out than that, there is some process to give passengers comfort that their claim has not simply got lost in the system. After all, in the case of long-haul flights for a family, you are talking about several thousand euro being locked up in bureaucracy.

Anyway, the good news for Ms J McD is that her refund has now been processed following our inquiry and you should receive it in the coming days.

I am told that additional resources are being put into the dealing with passenger fallout from the crisis and that the majority of applications for refunds will be processed within seven to 14 business days, ie up to three weeks. It seems a little late to be adding additional resources now but better late than never, I guess.

Aer Lingus does advise me that more complex bookings – for flights that have already been rebooked for a later date or where there is more than one form of payment used – may take longer “as these need to be processed manually”.

That, of course, suggests that straightforward queries should be processed in an automated system which, you would have thought, would avoid the need for any delay.

Trump restrictions

Mr GF has booked flights to the United States for November and is worried about the ban on entry to Irish passport holders under emergency measures put in place by President Donald Trump to keep the virus out of the US.

If forced to rebook for the following year, one of the party could not travel so a voucher is of limited use, he says.

The good news is that there is some sign of US restrictions on passenger entry easing in the past week so this may be academic by the time we get to November.

If there is a Government-issued restriction or warning against flying to a destination, Aer Lingus says you can choose to change your flight to another date or destination, though that will be no good to the one passenger who cannot go next year unless they can fly at a different time to the rest of the group, possibly to a different destination.

However, the airline’s response does not clarify if that “restriction or warning” would cover the US rules on entry or only official advice from our own Government on flying to particular destinations – and, as we know, the Government has been getting it in the neck over its somewhat muddled advice on foreign travel.

Cheaper option

Mr B O’C’s flights have been delayed by eight hours and he wants to know whether he should apply for a voucher rather than rebooking as flights on other dates to the same location are now substantially cheaper.

That might be a wise idea but, depending on when he wants to rebook, he needs to bear in mind that the voucher might not arrive in time and that he may be forced either to wait and lose out on the cheaper fare, or book ahead and use the voucher for a future trip.

You would probably be better off applying for a cash refund rather than the voucher. That would allow you to book the future, cheaper flights and the refund will eventually get to your account with no need to commit to future flights.

Aer Lingus confirms that where passengers simply switch their flight to a future date due to an Aer Lingus schedule change rather than applying for a voucher or refund, they do not have to pay any difference in fare if the new flights are more expensive.

But, equally, refunds are not provided if a customer is rebooking a new flight that’s cheaper than the original.

Booked pre-Covid

Finally, Ms JO was one of a group of four who booked a November break in New York back in February before the Covid crisis.

As of now, that flight is still operating but the group no longer wants to travel because of fears about the virus and concerns that they would have to quarantine for the entire time they are in the US and again when they come home, assuming local rules have not changed by then.

She wants to know should they just wait it out to see if the flight is cancelled or rescheduled, or should they just transfer the booking to next year, which is free. The third option is to cancel now and try to claim off the insurance.

She is also keen to find out if it is possible to secure a refund from Aer Lingus on the basis that the flight was booked “pre-Covid”.

On travel insurance, I would suggest she look very carefully at the wording of her policy. She could end up cancelling and being left fully out of pocket. I suspect that might well be the case if the flight is still scheduled unless she has a medical condition that would leave her in the high-risk category – and even then . . .

If they really don’t want to travel, I would also advise against a wait-and-see approach. More rather than fewer flights are likely to be operating by November so I wouldn’t bet on the success of that approach.

She could opt to transfer the flights to next year. Aer Lingus notes that it has waived the usual fee imposed for changing flights but it warns that you might still have to pay more if the price of next year’s tickets are more than you originally paid for this year’s flights.

There is no automatic entitlement to a refund imply because the flight was booked before Covid became a factor in all our lives. Refunds and vouchers will apply only where the flight is changed by a minimum of two hours, or cancelled.

“For future travel,” Aer Lingus says, “we are treating all customers equally. Therefore there is no difference between flights booked before or after Covid restrictions being introduced”.

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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