Aer Lingus struggles to resolve ticket refund fiasco

Q&A: Dominic Coyle

An Aer Lingus  customer services desk in the departure hall at Dublin Airport. Photographer: Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg

An Aer Lingus customer services desk in the departure hall at Dublin Airport. Photographer: Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg

 

I’ve been following your various updates from Aer Lingus on issuing refund vouchers for Covid-cancelled flights, most recently 15th September.

For the last few weeks, the Aer Lingus website has carried a notice that all vouchers for flights cancelled up to end July would be issued by end September. I cancelled flights on March 28th last and am still waiting. Mine was a straightforward booking, no Avios complications or anything like that.

I have phoned three times, beyond being told that the refund was approved for issuing on April 6th and sent to the “voucher issuing team” (June 29th). On the 17th of August I was told I should have it within two weeks and was given a case number. On September 14th, I was told a note would be put on my file seeking to have it expedited.

When I mentioned the website notice mentioned above, the assistant was unable to clarify how the backlog up to end July would be cleared within two weeks when bookings such as mine from four months earlier were still outstanding.

I’m sure I’m not the only one still affected. If you can do anything to unlock this logjam I’ll be eternally grateful!

Mr N.W., email

Aer Lingus, quite frankly, have simply flunked this challenge. Covid has been unique in its disruption of both the economy and society, and companies, including airlines, have had to scramble to try to survive both the effective shutdown of operations and the uncertainty that makes it so difficult to get any sense of a return to normality.

The airline has said many times that it has received an “unprecedented volume of refund and voucher requests” since the pandemic hit, causing the cancellation of flights. In their most recent response to a series of queries I sent, they note that they had received “in excess of two million refund and voucher requests”.

“To date, we have processed 1.8 million vouchers and refunds, or 90 per cent of the requests received. The remaining 10 per cent of requests are more complex in nature. However, we acknowledge that some customers have been waiting for too long and we have expanded our teams to address these older cases.”

The issue for Aer Lingus is that they are not the only business that has had to pivot to dealing with cancellations and disappointed customers – ask any major hotel group, or even other airlines. And they are a big business by any standards, with resources that most Covid-blighted business could never hope for.

But if you were to frame a scenario where a company goes out of its way to turn a tin ear to its customers, you would be hard put to surpass the Aer Lingus playbook.

Good crisis management the world over operates in broadly the same way – be transparent and up front about the problem, keep those affected in the communications loop and get it resolved quickly.

Beyond sending an automated email acknowledging receipt of a refund/voucher claim and warning passengers not to repeat the communication or risk dropping back further in the queue, Aer Lingus has made no effort to communicate with its customers.

It is perfectly possible that some cases are more complex than others and will require additional time. But once such a case was identified, it should have been a priority to get in touch with the passenger – even by email – to advise them of that just so they did not feel abandoned.

Aer Lingus has been holding, in some cases, over €1,000 of money for close to a year belong to people potentially facing their own personal financial crises as a result of the pandemic.

Mr N.W.’s case is just one of well over a hundred that I have received from people who have been waiting months for refunds, vouchers or even some form of communication beyond an automated email acknowledgement to indicate that the airline actually understands their plight and outlining (and delivering on) a reasonable timeframe for resolution.

Ryanair regularly gets spotlighted for its functional and impersonal customer service – especially for those who experience problems with bookings or flights. All I can say is that I have had only a handful of complaints about its failure to deal with these same issues in a reasonable timeframe during this crisis.

Maybe Ryanair passengers just don’t expect the same degree of customer service that Aer Lingus passengers do; maybe that airline’s lean and flexible operational model has made it easier for it to address issues that have arisen. Maybe it’s a bit of both.

What is unfortunately true is that the former national flag carrier, which sees itself as an ambassador for Ireland across the world, is doing damage to its image and brand – and possibly longer-term damage to the reputation of Ireland Inc all-important tourism market with which it has been so closely aligned down the years, even as a long-privatised carrier.

And it’s not that it hasn’t had the resources available. Thousands of staff have been unable to carry out their normal duties now for months as flights have been cancelled and schedules pared back. An adept employer would have had enough of the impacted staff temporarily reallocated (with the necessary training) in the early stages. Many of these staff are comfortable in customer facing roles anyway.

Instead Aer Lingus appears to have thrown up its hands and said it and its technology (since updated) have been overwhelmed. It says resources have been added more recently , and I’m sure they have, but it appears not enough and too late.

The airline’s approach to its customers over the past seven months will in time, I expect, become a business school case study in how not to manage a crisis.

Cleared

As Mr N.W. notes, Aer Lingus is still carrying a notice on its website saying that it expects to have all requests received up to the end of July cleared by end-September. Requests received in August will be processed following that, it states.

It is telling that now, close to halfway through October, it has either chosen not to, or has been unable to, update the website to confirm that that target has been met or not, and when people can now expect resolution.

Mr N.W. cancelled his flights in March, less than two weeks into lockdown, and as of late last week was still waiting for a voucher – not even a refund, just a voucher.

This should be a very straightforward matter. The passenger says his booking was straightforward. It had none of the complications that Aer Lingus has used as an excuse for some pretty inexcusable delays thus far – it was not booked through the Avios loyalty scheme and it was not a flight that was rescheduled and later cancelled.

Of course, something else could have created a difficulty. Aer Lingus has since advised that people who used the “fare deposit” option – where passengers intending to fly direct to or from North America (other than on Saver fares) can pay a 50 per cent deposit on booking with the balance paid two months before travel – also constitute a “complex case”.

But six and a half months for a voucher is so far beyond reasonable as to invalidate anything the airline might say.

Vouchers can be issued in an automated fashion. In the general course of business, that should mean a matter of hours, not even days in a company with proper structures in place. Yes, the sheer weight of requests was clearly an issue for Aer Lingus and other airlines, but six months?

Even if there was something about a booking that raised a flag and required human intervention, and even allowing for the weight of queries, this should have been resolved months ago.

I’m not as fully across the aviation experience in other countries but Aer Lingus’ sister airlines – British Airways and Iberia – have clearly had to contend with the same situation. And while there are certainly reports about the difficulty of using issued vouchers with BA (a nightmare that may yet visit passengers with the Irish airline), I’ve come across no suggestion that people are still waiting for vouchers for flights cancelled back in the early days of the Covid crisis.

Ironically, Aer Lingus’s chief executive Sean Doyle – who, with his fellow executives, has been noticeable by his absence from engagement with passengers during this crisis – was yesterday promoted to the CEO slot at BA following the surprise and immediate departure of its boss, Alex Cruz.

Assurances

What makes Mr N.W.’s case particularly egregious, even in the context of Aer Lingus’s dismal performance on customer service, is that he has actively pursued the case, managed to get through to an actual person on the phone and received separate assurances on three occasions – each more worthless than the last.

In June, he says he was told that the refund for his flights had been approved on April 6th – just over a week after he cancelled the flights – and sent to the “voucher issuing team”. At the time of his call, seven weeks after that “approval”, no voucher had arrived.

Having heard nothing, he contacted the airline again in mid-August and was told he should have his voucher in two weeks. He was also given a case number. But still nothing happened.

A month later, during another call, he was told a note would be put on his file “seeking to have it expedited”. Whatever expedited means in Aer Lingus these days, it appears to come nowhere close to the dictionary definition of the word – accelerating resolution.

Other issues

There are other issues. Passengers who bought the general airline patter that vouchers could be processed faster than refunds but who have received no vouchers yet, have been told they cannot now switch their preference to a refund even though the voucher has clearly not been issued.

And when I have raised these cases, rather than address the issue, the airline has simply “expedited” – that word again – the issue of a voucher.

It has also become clear that some people were confused by information about refunds on different areas of the Aer Lingus site. When you search for “refunds”, you are directed to a page that states clearly that certain fares are ineligible for refunds such as Saver fares.

To be fair to Aer Lingus, when you scroll further down that page, it does direct you to a separate page for flight disruptions in the case of cancelled flights and also notes that flights rescheduled by Aer Lingus – where the time changes by more than two hours – can be refunded regardless of the ticket rules.

I have no doubt that, ultimately, Aer Lingus will refund in cash or via voucher all the hundreds of thousands of passengers still out of pocket having been stranded by the virus. And I will say that the airline has been active in engaging with cases that I have personally raised with them. But neither they, nor I, would argue that this is the way a refund/voucher scheme should operate.

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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