Are the travel industry and airlines playing fair in coronavirus crisis?

Pricewatch: Hundreds of people could lose thousands of euro as their travel plans lie in tatters

Why is Aer Lingus continuing flights to the US when we are advised against non-essential travel and currently denied entry into the US anyway? Photograph: iStock

Why is Aer Lingus continuing flights to the US when we are advised against non-essential travel and currently denied entry into the US anyway? Photograph: iStock

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With thousands of people falling ill in Ireland in recent days and far too many people losing their lives as a result of the coronavirus pandemic at home and abroad, the crisis that has engulfed our world is, first and foremost, a public health one.

It is also a crisis which has seen hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland losing their jobs, virtually overnight. Pubs, restaurants, shops, hotels and almost every conceivable business has been forced to shut for the foreseeable future.

Grandparents have been cut off from grandchildren, families have been separated, and simple things that we all took for granted like giving someone a hug or going for a walk on a busy beach are gone for now.

In such a context, even talking about the impact the crisis has had on our holiday plans seems trite.

But it is not so trite when you consider that thousands of Irish people are facing the loss of many thousands of euro as a result of holidays which can no longer be taken or when you look at the struggles many people face as they try to get home from overseas as the pandemic spreads.

Last week, the British consumer group Which? expressed a very real fear that a long-established system of EU-wide travel protections was at risk of breaking down due to Covid-19.

It said it had been inundated with messages and requests for help from people facing the loss of large sums as airlines and package travel providers seemed unwilling to meet their legal obligations to issue refunds for cancelled flights and holidays.

The Which? experience mirrors that of this newspaper. In the past two weeks or so, Pricewatch has been contacted by hundreds of people who have grown increasingly concerned about their travel plans and confused about their rights in the face of this awful crisis.

Readers have complained about airlines not cancelling flights to locations despite travel bans covering those countries. They have highlighted how airlines and tour operators have not offered refunds for upcoming trips and are instead saying people have to choose between credit notes or free switches to alternate, and frequently more expensive flights. Sometimes people can’t get any answers at all.

We appreciate that airlines – all of them – have had to deal with a crisis of proportions that would have been unimaginable six weeks ago. And we understand that tour operators have found themselves in a virtually impossible position with all their customers suddenly seeking full refunds at exactly the same time.

But, although the current situation is unprecedented, it should not be used as an excuse to undermine consumer protections. “We’ve heard from hundreds of people who face losing large sums of money because their travel plans have been left in tatters or they have been abandoned abroad and face extortionate bills to get home,” said Which? travel editor Rory Boland.

He called on governments, insurers and the travel sector to “work together to tackle the huge challenge posed by coronavirus, as the travel industry depends on people having confidence that they will be protected in times of crisis”.

Last week Aer Lingus denied it was breaking the law by not offering full refunds to passengers who have had flights cancelled due to the coronavirus crisis.

However, passengers, tour operators and travel agents all flagged significant issues when dealing with the airline.

EU regulations

It was also accused of side-stepping refund claims from US-bound passengers by flying virtually empty planes across the Atlantic despite the fact that Irish passengers with bookings cannot travel as a result of restrictions imposed by the Trump administration.

The owner of the Tour America travel agency Mary McKenna said Aer Lingus was one of a number of airlines not following EU regulations and refusing to give passengers refunds.

She said it was attempting to push people into accepting vouchers or alternate bookings instead of giving them money back. She also said it was withholding money paid out by travel agents on behalf of clients.

“They have thrown the travel agents and tour operators under the bus,” she said. “A voucher instead of a refund is not acceptable and it is not going to be much use to someone who has lost their job.”

The chairman of the Irish Travel Agents’ Association Pat Dawson said it was “a black-and-white issue” and Aer Lingus was in breach of regulations by refusing to process refunds.

He said thousands of people who had paid for flights to the US could not travel because of restrictions. “But Aer Lingus won’t give refunds and are flying ghost planes across the Atlantic that are almost empty. It is absolutely disgraceful.”

Aer Lingus denied it was refusing to refund people and said when flights were cancelled it “provides guests with information in relation to their rights under EU Regulation 261 including, the right to a refund”.

It said “refund requests are being actioned via our website, through our social channels and through our call centre”. It said it was operating a reduced schedule to the US “to facilitate repatriation across Europe and North America” and passengers due to travel up to May 31st could change bookings or apply for travel vouchers. It said if flights were “proceeding as planned and there is a government-issued travel restriction or travel warning, guests should contact their travel insurer to seek a refund”.

Passenger rights

The European Consumer Centre which polices consumer rights across the EU, stressed that irrespective of what passengers had been told, airlines are “obliged to respect passenger rights which remain unchanged even under such extraordinary circumstances as the Covid-19 restrictions”.

Below are just some of the stories Pricewatch has been told in recent days that serve to highlight the confusion and the concern among the travelling public, who, like the travel industry, need support.

A very big problem seems to have arisen with obtaining refunds from Ryanair regarding cancelled flights. Photograph: iStock
A very big problem seems to have arisen with obtaining refunds from Ryanair regarding cancelled flights. Photograph: iStock

Here are just some of the stories Pricewatch has been told in recent days that serve to highlight the confusion and the concern among the travelling public, who, like the travel industry, need support.

Readers’ stories

“We booked a package holiday to Florida and New York city. The tour operator has offered to re-book our holiday for us and we are liable to pay a price difference if the new date costs more, or a credit voucher for €9,000. Both options are to be used by end of December 2020.” Imelda Conheady

“I had two ferries booked with Irish Ferries this year to travel between Ireland and France. The first was sailing on April 4th. Obviously this is not going to happen since the Department of Foreign Affairs [DFA] has advised against non-essential travel. So I contacted Irish Ferries. Their stance . . . “Our ships are sailing and are not cancelled.” They said I could move my money paid for the ferry on April 4th to my booking for June 20th with no amendment fee. This totalled over €1,100. You have to cancel your ferry with more than 41 days’ notice to get a refund of all monies bar the €100 deposit. So I contacted them again in order to cancel the ferry in June. I was told that the payment from my April booking was “credited”. Therefore, if I cancel the June booking now, the money will revert to the April booking and if I cancel that I will lose it all. All I want is the money I paid back. Credit with a ferry company is of no use to me. Surely a DFA warning to avoid non-essential travel would be covered in these instances as you can’t just get on a ferry and go to France without good reason. Maria Gilmartin

Why is Aer Lingus continuing flights to the US when we are advised against non-essential travel and currently denied entry into the US anyway? The voucher and offer to waive fees for changing flights are of no use because in my case the booked flight was for a specific purpose – a cruise – which has been cancelled and anyway who knows when normality will resume so how can you change a flight? Christy Curran

I am due to travel with Irish Ferries from Dublin to Cherburg on March 28th. The Department of Foreign Affairs advises to avoid all non-essential travel to France. Consequently, I wish to cancel my booking. The Irish Ferries website indicates that a cancellation fee will apply which, in my case, equates to the full fare price. This cancellation fee will be credited (refunded) against a fresh booking provided that booking is for travel up to December 18th, 2020. I am only choosing to cancel now because the Government advises me not to travel and I may not wish to travel to France until after December 18th. Is it right that Irish Ferries has imposed a cancellation fee with an arbitrary use-by date? Gerald Murphy

I’m so confused and worried. I booked a flight to Australia last July for me, my husband and our two boys to go see my sister and her family. I booked the flights via Skyscanner and ended up using lastminute.com as the travel agent. The flights were with Emirates. The flights were obviously cancelled and I emailed lastminute.com to ask them for a refund. I got an email back saying they would refund with a travel voucher but we paid nearly €4,000 with savings I had. We need the money to be refunded in case my job goes. Can they do this, do they not have to refund me? Sharon Molyneaux

Aer Lingus has offered passengers a voucher to the value of their flight in lieu of flights booked to fly until the end of May. They are not responding with information like when these vouchers expire. Do they have to be all used in just one alternative future booking? Are we entitled to a full refund instead? Also, if Aer Lingus goes into administration or liquidation, these vouchers are useless. We are a family of four which were due to fly to the US in early April. The cost of the flights is almost €3,000. Brian Murphy

I’m looking for some information about a voucher that Aer Lingus is offering to me and a group of friends who were supposed to fly to Bilbao in May. Is there a time limit with this voucher? I can’t find any information about how long it lasts and if it is covered under the new five-year law.

I’m sure you are inundated with emails regarding Ryanair so I will keep this brief; I have a reservation with Ryanair to travel to Lanzarote with my family this coming Sunday, 22nd March, from Shannon Airport. The outbound flight is showing as cancelled on its website, however, the return flight on 29th March is still showing as operating. I do not wish to change my flights (despite many emails advising me to do so). I have logged into the refund section to apply for a refund on my flights but I have been unsuccessful. It tells me that “this service is not available at this time”. I have tried to contact Ryanair by phone and email but its phone line gives an engaged tone. Maeve Keating.

We are a group booked to travel to golf in Portugal next Thursday. We don’t want to travel but the resort says they are still open and will only offer a change of date with increased fees. It does not suit some to travel later in the year. Have we any standing in cancelling now and getting a refund? Cormac O’Connor

Ryanair has a customer service email address which I found with great difficulty. But when you send an email with a simple query, you get a lengthy automated response with a huge range of options, none of which answer the question. Is it not obliged to have a proper customer service email address to provide answers to individual customers’ questions?

Also, its treatment of customers who have flights booked over the coming weeks is appalling . . . no refunds or even credit notes being offered . . . just one option to change to another date “for free” but pay the difference in the fares. Invariably the difference is nothing short of extortionate! In any event the customer cannot plan ahead in the current climate. Surely it’s reasonable to expect a refund or at least a credit note? I’m aware of a number of people within my immediate family with the same problem. Michael Fay

Travel industry’s responses

In the normal course of events, we contact companies and seek answers, and we have made efforts to contact some of the companies referred to by readers – mostly the airlines – in recent days. But responses have been slow in coming. And we understand that. And we appreciate that the volume of complaints is too high for them to deal with. We also understand that every single travel company is trying to deal with an impossible situation. But readers need help so we went to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission for this story. We contacted the Commission for Aviation Regulation. And we contacted the European Consumer Centre (ECC).

What we wanted to know was do airline and ferry passengers and customers of travel and tour operators have the same rights today as they did before the coronavirus crises hit.

In the normal course of events, if a flight, ferry or holiday is cancelled, passengers and holidaymakers have the right to a refund or a rerouting or a holiday at an alternate time. But if every flight and every ferry and every holiday is cancelled as countries go into lockdown, do normal rules apply?

One source in one agency told us there were “no clear answers to many of the issues” raised by our readers and said the companies’ actions “are within their discretion and resources at present”.

They made the point that many companies – all of them perhaps – are “currently dealing with a high volume of requests and this may cause delays and has an impact on processing; this is an admin and resources problem”.

The rights of Irish people who have seen their travel plans descend into chaos and confusion were partially clarified by the regulator which governs the aviation sector in Ireland.

Long-standing rules make it clear that when flights are cancelled, passengers must be offered the choice of a refund, a re-routing at the earliest opportunity or re-routing at a later date.

In addition, airlines can offer incentives to passengers to encourage them to fly at a later date, for example, through providing vouchers of a higher value.

“We recognise that, at present, it may be difficult for airlines to provide alternative flights, for example, where Government advice is to avoid travel to particular destinations affected by Covid-19,” the Commission for Aviation Regulation said. “A refund for the passenger may, therefore, be the only practical option available.”

EU Regulation 261 also provides for the payment of compensation in some circumstances. However, the commission said that “in the current unprecedented circumstances” it would be unlikely to be payable in most instances.

The ECC said that “regardless of when you are told about the cancellation, your airline is still obliged to respect the passenger rights below that remain unchanged, even under extraordinary circumstances, such as the Covid-19 restrictions. Passengers are always entitled to information and are entitled to a full refund of the ticket price.

“Air passengers are no longer entitled to usually applicable rights including compensation given the scale of the crisis.

“Ferry passengers are also entitled to refunds in the event of cancellations. They are not entitled to compensation if the cancellation is caused by ‘extraordinary circumstances’.”

For its part, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) agreed with our assessment that these were “unprecedented times with massive disruptions for consumers and businesses”.

A spokesman said there were a number of different departments and agencies “working to keep ahead of developments, delivering information to both industry and consumers, and trying to look forward to where circumstances are taking us”.

The spokesman said “that the circumstances and issues of consumers vary significantly, with some who are under statute entitled to refunds and seeking information about what their rights are, others had concerns about future arrangements which ultimately rely on the terms and conditions which applied at the time of purchase.

“Related to this are consumers who may be affected by cancellations but there is no statutory obligations to provide a refund and, as such, their circumstances fall under contract law. An example of this could be flights which are going to locations that Irish citizens cannot travel but nationals of that country can travel to and so the flight is not cancelled.”

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