Airlines failing to help consumers deal with ‘mess created by Covid’

Pricewatch: Readers charged for flight changes and refused refunds despite rules

Airlines owe Irish consumers at least €25 million as a result of Covid-19-related flight cancellations. Photograph: iStock

Airlines owe Irish consumers at least €25 million as a result of Covid-19-related flight cancellations. Photograph: iStock

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The scale of the crisis which has engulfed the Irish travel industry and the impact it has had on would-be travellers was laid bare at a recent hearing of the Oireachtas transport committee.

Earlier this month it emerged that airlines owe Irish consumers at least €25 million as a result of Covid-19-related flight cancellations with some of the outstanding refunds, dating back to the beginning of the crisis in March, still not processed. The €25 million was said to be a conservative estimate with some of those addressing the hearing suggesting it could top €30 million.

Ryanair in particular was accused of dragging its heels when processing refunds and playing different strands of legislation against each other to avoid returning money to travel agents which could subsequently be passed on to consumers.

Airlines were also accused of operating virtually empty “ghost flights” out of Ireland over the summer months to avoid issuing refunds to passengers unable to travel due to official restrictions imposed because of Covid-19.

The chief executive of the Irish Travel Agents Association, Pat Dawson, said Ryanair was refusing to pay money back to travel agents on the basis that European Union directive 261, which governs flight refunds in the event of cancellations, requires them to pay money directly to consumers. The package travel directive, meanwhile, requires travel agents to refund consumers in the event that holidays – including flights – have been cancelled.

Where were the voices of consumers who have been directly impacted by the delays and the confusion? They have yet to be heard by the committee

Dawson said that despite the fact it had been “dealing with travel agents for 20 years” Ryanair had changed course in recent months and instead of channelling refunds through travel agents it was deploying delaying tactics. He said it was demanding details such as utility bills and bank account details from customers before considering direct refunds.

While Ryanair came in for particular flak it was clear there were few, if any, airlines or politicians who had covered themselves in glory in helping consumers deal with the mess created by Covid-19.

The committee concluded its session by promising to investigate the issue further and said it would be calling on the airlines, industry experts and various Ministers to talk about the issue.

As the hearing was coming to an end something struck Pricewatch, who was in virtual attendance. Where were the voices that perhaps most needed to be heard? Where were the voices of consumers who have been directly impacted by the delays and the confusion? They have yet to be heard by the committee or any committee.

To the best of our knowledge – and we could be entirely wrong on this score (but we’re not) – the committee has not expressed any desire to hear from passengers. We thought it might be good to amplify some of those voices, on the off-chance the committee was interested in hearing how people have been and continue to be treated.

No response

Richard Heneghan had flights booked to Portugal and was due to travel in August. “As Portugal was not on the Government green list, we did not travel,” he says. “Multiple tweets to Ryanair and a couple of phone calls resulted in no response at all. While I would have initially accepted a voucher, I was so annoyed by Ryanair’s lack of engagement that I subsequently wrote to AIB in an effort to seek a full refund. What’s hugely disappointing – and very surprising, in my opinion – is that despite a letter to AIB on August 18th with full details and a follow-up letter on September 24th, I have also been ignored by AIB.”

Shane Costigan and his girlfriend were supposed to go to New York on May 1st for a holiday. “We were all under the 5km travel restriction at the time so legally we weren’t allowed get to the airport, never mind New York,” he says. “I rang up Aer Lingus who said you can have a full refund if the flight is cancelled. Then two days before, I rang again and asked is the flight still going. They said it was so I was ineligible for a refund. They said: ‘Your flight is still going every day this week at this time.’ They also mentioned that my flight, out of all the flights going to New York, was the one they were keeping active. Same with my return flight. Suspicious enough! Now we have two €550 vouchers and nowhere to go.”

Sarah Doody was supposed to fly out to Edinburgh on May 15th for her hen weekend. “It had been booked since early in the year and I was really looking forward to it. Obviously at the time, the advice from all governments, including UK, was ‘essential travel only’ so we didn’t go,” she says.

“However, Ryanair did not cancel the flight – I didn’t bother seeking a refund as I knew the answer – and I got the reminders to check in. I said it to my partner at the time; they won’t cancel the flight so they can avoid refunding money as that would be one of their busier routes and the plane was likely fully booked or close to it.”

Helen McIver wanted to add a point to the debate. “If you booked flights last February to travel in August as I and, I’m sure, lots of other people, did and then took the Government advice not to travel, you are not entitled to a refund at all from Ryanair unless the flight was cancelled. And flight-change fees, which are €35 per person for each leg of the journey, were only waived by Ryanair for new flights booked from June 2020! These bookings, made by people like myself prior to Covid, are not included in the €25million refunds that airlines owe to Irish consumers because Ryanair continued to fly their ‘ghost’ planes rather than offer a refund or change of flight without fees to customers like me.”

Helen also wrote to both Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly. “It is very unfair that Ryanair is only waiving cancellation fees for new bookings . . . Prior to Covid, if you booked a flight with Ryanair to travel in August and are now following Government advice not to travel, Ryanair will not refund you or waive rebooking fees. They should be forced not to fly or they or the Government should compensate people for these flights. This is the reason why many people decided to fly because otherwise they will be out of pocket.”

Refusal to refund

Shiju Varghesewith wanted to highlight his experiences in trying to get a refund from Ebookers for Turkish Airlines flight tickets in March and April. “A travel advisory was issued by the government of India prior to our date of travel due to Covid-19 which would have prevented our entry. Moreover, three out of the four Turkish Airlines flights in our journey leg were cancelled,” he says. Ebookers claim he was a no-show at the airport and refused to refund him. “We did not proceed to the airport as we were aware of the travel advisory,” he explains.

He says Ebookers’ customer care “was in absolute shambles in March”. He “tried to get in touch with them numerous times on the phone with wait times in some cases exceeding 30 minutes but to no avail.”

In May he made a formal complaint and wrote to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) who said the issue related to a booking with a website governed by the laws of England and Wales: “As such your query falls outside the jurisdiction of the CCPC as we have an enforcement role in relation to companies based or registered in the Republic of Ireland only. However, where consumer complaints relate to companies outside your country of residence but within the EU or the United Kingdom, the European Consumer Centre (ECC) in Dublin can most appropriately handle your query. The ECC assist consumers in cross border disputes.”

He then contacted the ECC and was told he could seek a refund of the cost of the cancelled segments. They suggested he request written confirmation from Turkish Airlines stating that the relevant segments of the journey were cancelled and the flights in question did operate. Once this was confirmed he was told to contact Ebookers to seek a refund.

And where is he now? Ebookers have issued a travel credit with conditions attached. Flights must be booked on the same airline for the same passengers. The origin and destination must be the same and the journey must be completed by the end of next year with the tickets issued by the end of this year. The company has refused to refund.

Sean Rea and his wife and son were to fly to Malaga on September 24th and return four days later. “I booked and paid for these flights in June 2020. They cost €707.04 and we were going to my wife’s cousin’s wedding which was to be held in Spain. The wedding was cancelled because of the current situation and a lot of the guests who were to attend were travelling from America, Venezuela, Ireland and the United Kingdom,” he says.

From what I’m reading a 12-week wait for a voucher from Aer Lingus is but a drop in the ocean!

After some research on their website he didn’t try to look for a refund as it says they only refund for death or serious illness. “But as it happens I was out on my bike on September 23rd the day before we were supposed to fly out when I had an accident. I was brought to hospital by ambulance as I was a bit battered and bruised. When I got home from hospital later that night I looked at the Ryanair website where I found a section to claim a refund for death or serious illness. So I applied as I had a medical cert from the hospital stating I had to stay out of work for a few days . . . I uploaded the cert to the claim. That will be four weeks next Wednesday and I haven’t gotten any reply from Ryanair.”

“We are a family of six who were due to fly to Portugal on July 24th last,” writes Laura King. “I applied for a voucher on the 20th of July and received an email acknowledgement of the same. I heard nothing for six weeks so decided to tweet Aer Lingus for an update to which they eventually replied that they had no such request. I then called their customer service and, after a lengthy wait, got through and was assured that they did have my voucher request and that it had been approved and forwarded for issue. Here we are, another six weeks on, and nothing. From what I’m reading a 12-week wait for a voucher from Aer Lingus is but a drop in the ocean!”

Charged for changing dates

Deirdre Bigley booked two tickets to Greece and was due to fly out on March 13th last with Aegean Airlines and return with Ryanair five days later. Her initial return flights cost €169.98 for two people.

Then lockdown happened: “We saw the writing on the wall and cancelled our flights. Both Aegean and Ryanair allowed us to change our dates to October. Both charged us more for this change. My new-date tickets cost an additional €44,” she says.

Deirdre was determined to get to Greece, which was included on the Government green list, but soon the country was placed into Level 3 restrictions and Greece was removed from the list of safe countries to travel to. Aegean Airlines cancelled the outward flight and Deirdre was “going nowhere”, she says.“Ryanair refused to give me a voucher or a refund. I could of course change the dates – as a matter of curiosity I looked at changing to the same date in 2021 – the cost would have been an additional €200-odd.”

Ryanair told me there was nothing they could do as the flight was still going so we lost €450 on those flights

Mary O’Connor booked with Ryanair for flights out of Malaga on March 21st last to Dublin. “Spain went into lockdown on March 14th so we tried to change flights to earlier in the week. We checked availability and Ryanair had seats earlier in the week but because we had already checked in we could not change our reservations,” she says.

They learned they would have to contact Ryanair directly. “Were they kidding? Left chat-line open for eight hours one day and six the next – no response and no telephone response. We ended up forfeiting our tickets and had to pay Aer Lingus €800 for two seats back on 17th March.”

Áine O Dwyer, her husband and their two children booked a Ryanair flight to a family member’s wedding which was supposed to be held in April. “Due to travel restrictions the wedding was postponed in March to a new date in September. “I changed my flights to the September dates,” she says.

“As the travel guidance was still in place the wedding was postponed to May of next year. Fortunately our flight home which we had paid over €700 for was cancelled and we were able to get a refund or voucher. The flights out still went ahead. I contacted Ryanair and asked for a refund. I had no option to change the flight to the new date in May as Ryanair had not yet released the flights for April and May. Ryanair told me there was nothing they could do as the flight was still going so we lost €450 on those flights.”

We are mothers of 11 children between us so I’m sure you can imagine the long-term planning that is involved in all four of us getting away 

Anne Matthews was due to fly to Tucson, Arizona, in April 2020 and paid €1,030 for her Aer Lingus flights. “I was offered the choice to either reschedule or take a voucher. I wrote back and said my first choice was for a refund but if not I would accept a voucher. After numerous phone calls and emails and more information at hand, I said I only wanted a refund. I am still waiting. I paid by credit card and only this week I heard that I could apply to reverse the charge. There is a four-month delay on that and no guarantees.”

In early January Ruth Hegarty booked flights from Dublin to Ibiza for herself and four friends with a departure date of May 9th. “We had been saving for 3½ years for the trip as we had decided to go together to celebrate our 40th birthdays in 2020. We are mothers of 11 children between us so I’m sure you can imagine the long-term planning that is involved in all four of us getting away at the same time for a five-night trip. Alas it was not meant to be.

“Initially they thought they would just be moving our travel dates to the autumn and the resort in Ibiza immediately agreed that we could move to any date in the 2020 season, despite having booked a non-refundable rate, and before they knew they would not be open come May. The hotel subsequently issued us with vouchers for the 2021 season – fingers crossed we will be able to get there then.”

Ruth considered changing the dates of the flights but “held fire as we were not prepared to travel until things were 100 per cent safe and I did not want to end up with flights on a date planes were flying but when we were not willing to travel. In the end, of course, the flights were cancelled. I immediately requested a refund and three times responded to Ryanair’s emails attempting to offer vouchers by ‘reapplying’ for a cash refund. The last correspondence I received was in late June telling me since I had refused vouchers I was in the ‘queue’ for a cash refund and there were some delays due to the level of requests. Three and a half months since that email, and five months on from the date of our cancelled flights, still no refund. I understood the delays initially and was not in any mad rush to have the money back but at this point it’s getting a bit ridiculous.”

Isn’t it just?

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