Aer Lingus vouchers fail to take off for pandemic-hit consumers

Pricewatch: Airlines need not give cash refunds if consumers initially agree to vouchers

Once you have accepted vouchers you have closed off the refund avenue. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Once you have accepted vouchers you have closed off the refund avenue. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

A year on and the impact of the early days of the pandemic is still being felt by Pricewatch readers, particularly when it comes to travel. Some hard lessons are being learned, particularly when it comes to vouchers.

“I am writing to you on behalf of a group of three families,” starts a mail we got from Darragh Ward. He made a group booking with Aer Lingus for six adults, a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old for a trip to Lanzarote last May and has now spent the guts of a year trying to get a refund of €3,700.

“We were due to fly on May 30th but our flights were cancelled in early April by Aer Lingus due to restrictions imposed by the Government. At this point we completed a refund form online on the Aer Lingus website and accepted the option of a voucher because we thought that the pandemic would be short-lived and we would be able to travel in September. We got notification from Aer Lingus on April 28th that one single voucher would be issued to the group shortly.”

All of the group want a cash refund. I have continued to email on behalf of the group with the same responses

Ward says that when the seriousness of the pandemic became apparent and “not having received any further correspondence from Aer Lingus, I began requesting a cash refund from them as global and personal circumstances changed. Numerous phone calls and emails were exchanged requesting a cash refund from early August onwards with the same outcome. Aer Lingus stated that we had been issued with a voucher therefore our docket had been closed.”

He says that in November Aer Lingus issued the group with a 110 per cent voucher “which we do not want to accept as the family of four in particular do not feel that they would make use of the voucher. All of the group want a cash refund. I have continued to email on behalf of the group with the same responses.”

He says that the last to contact he had with the airline was a claim that it “could not give a cash refund as per their policies because we cancelled, which we did not. They have now offered us three separate vouchers to the value of 110 per cent plus €100 for each voucher.”

The law is very clear. If a consumer has booked a flight directly with an airline, or via a third party such as a booking engine or travel operator, and the flight was cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions, the airline is no longer required to pay compensation. But it is still obliged to respect the other basic air passenger rights – even under extraordinary circumstances, such as Covid-19 – including reimbursement.

Under the provisions of regulation EU 261/2004, when a passenger chooses a refund, this can be processed in cash or in vouchers, “but it is up to the consumer to accept the voucher or not”.

This is where our reader runs into difficulty. Because in the first instance he accepted the voucher it means Aer Lingus is not compelled to issue a cash refund. Once a passenger accepts the refund in the form of a voucher then, at least in the eyes of the Commission for Aviation Regulation, the air carrier has fulfilled its obligation to refund the passenger once it issues the voucher.

Vouchers

We also heard from Suzanne Galloway, who had a different query in connection with Aer Lingus vouchers. “I applied for a voucher last November for flights which were for New York last Christmas,” she says. “My issue is I still haven’t heard from them. I contacted them in February and they said they would put me on the list! I understand they are swamped but how long do you know does this usually take?”

She says she is looking to rebook for this Christmas “but they have already put the flights up by an extra €300, if this goes on much longer we won’t be able to afford them. Am I within my rights to get a refund at this stage instead of a voucher?”

When I asked on the web chat for a copy of the terms and conditions of my flight the agent sent me incorrect details

Technically airlines are required to refund passengers within seven days of the flight cancellation and people who do not receive a refund within this timescale can submit a complaint to the airline and then to the national enforcement body, which in Ireland is the Commission for Aviation Regulation. It deals with such matters on its dedicated website, flightrights.ie. However, given the scale of the crisis that hit the airline industry delays – and sometimes long ones – were inevitable.

It can take quite a while for the vouchers to be processed – months, even. And as we have already said, once you have accepted the vouchers you have closed off the refund avenue.

Transatlantic flight

We then heard from a third Aer Lingus customer by the name of Adrienne. “I booked a transatlantic flight with Aer Lingus a number of months ago. However, due to the pandemic we are not able to travel,” she says.

“I contacted Aer Lingus to change my booking. I was told that I could change the flight for free but when I tried to change to a Geneva flight I was informed that it was only possible to change to a transatlantic flight.”

She has scoured the airline’s website and the mails she has received and cannot find a reference to this clause anywhere. “When I asked on the web chat for a copy of the terms and conditions of my flight the agent sent me incorrect details. I am still awaiting a copy via email but am due to travel next week so I am not convinced I will receive a copy before I was due to fly.”

She says she would like to highlight this “as Aer Lingus are advertising” free changes “for the summer. I cannot see anywhere on their website that it must be on the same route. Perhaps you can check this and if indeed it is the case that it must be the same route (ie European or transatlantic). People should be warned before they buy.”

Aer Lingus response

We got in touch with Aer Lingus about all three issues.

When it came to the Lanzarote vouchers, it said that, as outlined, our reader opted for a voucher rather than a refund at the time of cancellation and confirmed it was in lieu of a cash refund. However a spokeswoman said that in “recognition of the fact that this is a group booking, we have agreed to facilitate splitting the voucher to allow all parties use it towards future bookings. An additional 10per cent was also added to the customer’s vouchers. In order to provide maximum flexibility in relation to vouchers, Aer Lingus vouchers issued in respect of flights that were cancelled due to the pandemic are valid for five years and are transferrable.”

When it came to the voucher application for the New York flights Aer Lingus apologised for the delay and said it has now been issued.

And the spokesman said our reader who wanted to change a transatlantic flight to a European one can get a voucher to the full value of their booking which they can use towards future bookings over the next five years. “Our team will reach out to the customer to facilitate this.”

So, that’s all good then.

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