Q&A: When can we travel again, and what does the EU ruling mean?

A look at travellers’ rights, requirements for travel to restart and refunds for cancelled trips

A sign tells commuters that they need to wear a face covering, or mask, and observe social distancing as a precautionary measure against Covid-19, at Westminster underground station in central London. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/ AFP via Getty Images

A sign tells commuters that they need to wear a face covering, or mask, and observe social distancing as a precautionary measure against Covid-19, at Westminster underground station in central London. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/ AFP via Getty Images

 

The European Commission has a plan to allow me to go on holidays again, has it?
Well, sort of. It has just published a comprehensive “package on tourism and transport” that, it hopes, will act as a road map for the lifting of travel restrictions and kickstart the tourism industry across the European Union.

What does the package look like?
It is made up of guidelines and recommendations to help EU countries gradually lift travel restrictions, allow businesses to reopen and “ensure that people in Europe can benefit from a safe and relaxing summer after months of confinement while respecting necessary health precautions”.

“A safe and relaxing summer?” That sounds amazing. Can you tell me more?
Don’t get too excited. The commission cannot make everything okay by wishing it so. The report is full of caveats and makes clear its plans depend on Covid-19 infection rates falling and staying low. What the commission is looking for is a common EU-wide approach to lifting movement restrictions, which will be done in a “gradual and co-ordinated way”.

What does that mean?
The lifting of restrictions will have to mirror what is happening in member states. EU countries should work together to support the gradual re-establishment of transport and tourism, and travel vouchers should be made “an attractive alternative to cash reimbursement”.

Ah yes, vouchers. Talk to me about them. Do I have to accept them if my flight has been cancelled?
The short answer is no. Your rights, when it comes to cancelled flights and holidays cancelled as result of the pandemic, are the same now as they were before the crisis started. Although the commission has called on member states, travel organisers and carriers to find “pragmatic and flexible solutions that respect passengers’ and travellers’ right to be reimbursed for cancelled transport services or package travel holidays in the current situation of coronavirus pandemic”, it insists the rules are the rules.

That is good. Has it said more than that?
Yes, it has issued a recommendation on travel vouchers for passengers and travellers as an alternative to reimbursement for cancelled services. It encourages member states to follow a joint approach, giving consumers an attractive and reliable choice between a cash refund or accepting a voucher instead.

But, to be clear, I do not have to accept a voucher instead of a cash refund?
No. Contrary to the wishes of some EU states, including Ireland, people “can be reassured that their rights are protected”.

What are those rights?
EU regulations provide for passenger rights in the case of cancellation of transport services, while the package-travel directive provides protection for travellers who booked travel packages with a tour operator. People with package holidays booked are entitled to a refund if a trip has to be cancelled as a result of the current crisis. There is a time frame of 14 days for refunds to be issued. In the case of a cancellation by the carrier, passengers have the choice to be offered reimbursement or rerouting. Refunds must be processed within seven days of a passenger’s request in the cases of air and sea transport, and 14 days after the offer has been made or the request has been received for bus and coach transport . The time limit is a month in the case of rail transport.

But I have only been offered a voucher
The rules also say reimbursement can be made in cash or via a voucher, but a voucher can only be issued if the passenger agrees to it.

So what is the commission saying now?
It says vouchers may be “a viable and attractive alternative to reimbursement for cancelled package travel and transport services in the context of coronavirus pandemic”. It calls on companies to make vouchers more attractive.

How would they do that?
They should be covered by insolvency protection – in case the carrier or organiser becomes insolvent – with a system to be set up at national level. It says they are refundable if not redeemed, with passengers and travellers given the right to ask for reimbursement up to 12 months after the issuance of the voucher. Carriers and organisers are being asked to consider making vouchers refundable at an earlier stage if the passenger or traveller requests.

Anything else?
Yes, it says vouchers should allow people to book the same route under the same conditions as the original booking or to book a package with the same characteristics as the terminated package. And it says carriers and organisers should consider allowing the vouchers to be used for bookings with other entities that form part of the same group of companies. It also suggests that vouchers for transport services should be transferable to another passenger without any additional cost.

But I only want my money back
“If you have lost your job, if this is your entire holiday budget for travelling that sits in these tickets you cannot use any more, then you need a refund. And that is why we say this is your right, full stop,” said commissioner Margrethe Vestager. She added that letters were being sent to the member states failing to force airlines to respect passengers’ rights – the first step in infringement procedures when countries fail to implement EU law. “If one can afford to take a voucher or would like to support the businesses by taking a voucher, this can be made attractive,” Vestager said, adding that long delays before reimbursement were “not what is supposed to happen”.

Is that what the document says too?
Yes, it stresses that you can ask for a refund. “You have the legally protected choice between reimbursement in money or a voucher. Given the liquidity problems of the carriers and organisers, you could consider to choose a voucher if the conditions are attractive.”

It says that if consumers do not receive a reply from the carrier within the legal or recommended deadlines, or if they are not satisfied with the reply, they can lodge a complaint with the relevant national enforcement authority for passenger rights. In Ireland that is the Commission for Aviation Regulation, who consumer website is flightrights.ie.

I have flights booked for later this year but, with the pandemic, I don’t want to go. Will I get a refund or a voucher if I cancel a flight that does actually depart?
No, refunds or vouchers can only be claimed if the flight is cancelled or if there is an official travel advisory warning against leaving the country in place. Disinclination to travel –  even if it is entirely understandabble – is not, generally speaking, covered. However, what you may be able to do is change the booking to a point further into the future, by which time the crisis may have lifed to such an extent that you feel comfortable travelling again.

Okay, so do I know now if I can go on summer holidays abroad?
No. And it is important to remember that travel restrictions in this country are still in force. Until July 20th people will not be able to travel more than 20km from their homes. The commission document says the first steps towards foreign travel will only be possible when “the domestic epidemiological situation allows relaxation of domestic free-movement restrictions”.

Effectively, we will see a lifting of restrictions and controls between regions and countries with “sufficiently similar epidemiological situations”. The document says the “approach must also be flexible, including the possibility to reintroduce certain measures if the health situation requires... “The commission anticipates that a staged and co-ordinated approach is likely to be necessary.”

And what does all that mean?
The commission wants countries to begin to return to unrestricted cross-border movement on the basis of three criteria. First there is the epidemiological aspect, which will focus on where the situation is improving, based on the regional map being developed by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Then there is the ability to apply containment measures such as physical distancing throughout the whole journey, including at border crossings. Finally, there will be economic and social considerations, which will prioritise cross-border movement in key areas of health, social and economic activity.

Will the lifting of restrictions at borders only refer to countries that neigbour each other?
No. When restrictions are lifted between two regions, the same treatment should be extended to all regions in Europe where the health situation is comparable. If a member state decides to lift its restrictions on movement to and from another member state, or to regions of either such member state, this must apply, without discrimination, to all EU citizens and to all residents of that member state regardless of their nationality, and should apply to all parts of the union in a similar epidemiological situation.

Okay, talk to me about travel. How will that start again?
The commission is proposing a gradual approach to lifting travel restrictions, which will be in three phases. The first phase is the one we are in now, called phase zero, which will see several travel restrictions in place for inessential travel. Phase one will see travel restrictions and border controls gradually lifted throughout the EU, starting between regions, areas and states “with a positively evolving and sufficiently similar epidemiological situation”. Phase two will see all coronavirus-related restrictions and controls at internal EU borders lifted, while keeping the necessary health measures in place. Travel for all purposes should be permitted throughout the union.

How can I find out where restrictions are still in place?
The commission says member states should regularly communicate on the state of play of restrictions to ensure that people crossing borders can plan and act on the basis of transparent information. It says it will support this communication effort by continuing to display publicly on its website the list of internal border controls in place at any given time.

How does the commission think travel can be made safer?
To minimise contact, passengers will be encouraged to buy tickets and check in online. Physical distancing should be ensured at security checks and luggage drop-off and collection; fewer passengers may be allowed on board; and passengers who are not from the same household may be seated apart. In situations where physical distancing is harder to ensure, additional safeguards and measures should be put in place.

Like what?
The commission recommends wearing nonmedical face masks; staff should be provided with adequate PPE, and protective barriers are likely to be installed; doors should be opened automatically or remotely by the driver at every stop; and sanitising or disinfecting gel should be available in vehicles and in transport hubs; all vehicles should be cleaned and disinfected regularly; and food, drinks and other goods may no longer be for sale on board, to minimise contact. The commission report recommends that ventilation should be strengthened. The report says the aim is “to mitigate risk – we cannot eliminate it”.

When will all the transport connections resume?
The easing of travel and operational restrictions will be gradual, and the “progressive restoration of transport services and connectivity will be fully dependent on relaxation of travel restrictions, on epidemiological assessments, and on expert medical advice on health and sanitary protection needs”.

Will I be protected during my stay in hotel, or on visits to restaurants or an outdoor tourist area?
The report underlines that, as long as there is a risk of infection, travelling entails some risks. To protect the health of guests, as well as workers, it is essential to follow infection-prevention measures, such as physical distancing and hygiene, respiratory etiquette and use of face masks, as well as cleaning and disinfection.

And is Ryanair taking to the skies again?
It has plans to restore 40 per cent of flight schedules from July 1st, including 139 routes from the Republic of Ireland. It has, however, stressed that its plans are subject to governments lifting travel bans within the EU, and public-health measures being put in place in airports. The airline has said passengers should have their temperatures checked, wear face masks, carry less check-in baggage and download boarding passes to smartphones instead of printing them. Ryanair thinks airports should carry out temperature checks, but airports have not agreed to this yet. Crew will wear face masks and gloves, and toilets will only be opened on request, to eliminate queues.

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