The Pricewatch mailbox continues to overflow with queries and complaints connected to travel, and it remains – by far – the single biggest area of concern among readers. People are confused about their rights and worried about losing money and angered at companies who – they say – are deliberately making their lives more difficult by ignoring queries or putting up spurious roadblocks in the way of resolution.
Were we to feature every single complaint we have received in the last couple of months we would probably need a supplement, so large has the volume of correspondence been. Here are just some of the queries we received on a single day early last week.
First up was a mail from a reader by the name of Frank Lawrence: "I decided to drop you a line because I have been waiting for an Aer Lingus voucher since April 17th," his mail began. "I was supposed to travel to Paris from Dublin on May 2nd and to return on June 6th. Of course, this was not possible due to the Covid-19 restrictions in France and Ireland. "
Now, under EU regulations – regulations that the authorities in Ireland and across the EU have repeatedly stressed remain in force despite attempts by airlines to circumvent them – if a flight is cancelled by an airline, then a passenger has a legal right to a full refund and that refund has to be issued within seven working days of the impacted passenger seeking it. As you will most likely be aware, many airlines across the EU have sought to issue passengers with vouchers instead of cash. Our reader was actually happy with that and was not demanding his cash back.
But over the last six or seven weeks he has got nothing.
“I realise that Aer Lingus must be under a lot of pressure given the volume of cancellations, but I would have thought that much of this voucher process must be automated,” he wrote. “Finally, today [last Tuesday] I decided to call the Aer Lingus website helpdesk number in Dublin, only to find that I was directed to a recorded message informing me that their agents couldn’t do anything to help and could not take calls. Basically, the message was, you have to wait and there’s nothing you can do, so f**k off now!”
Our reader has followed the news at Irish and European levels regarding refunds versus vouchers. "In my case, I am happy to take a voucher. I know I'll use it, as I travel frequently enough within Europe, both for work and pleasure. I'm contacting you because you seem to have success getting responses. How long does one have to wait for a voucher and what is reasonable? At the moment, there is no clarity and, it would appear, no deadline for Aer Lingus to deal with this."
Aer Lingus said it was processing an “unprecedented level of refund and voucher applications together with rebooking requests”. A spokeswoman said it had expanded its teams and introduced new processes in an effort to speed up the process time. “We are working around the clock to address the extraordinary increase in applications and are endeavouring to process refunds and vouchers as quickly as we can. “
The next mail we received was from Michael Thanner, and he had a question which was similar to one many of our readers have posed in recent days. "Myself and my wife are booked on a Ryanair flight from Dublin to Memmingen, Germany on Monday, July 6th," he began.
“We have recently received notification that this flight is going ahead as scheduled. However, we live in Kerry and would be travelling to Dublin for this flight. As travel outside of our region is not permitted until 20th July we would like to postpone this flight, without incurring extra cost, until August.”
The couple wrote to Ryanair and said this was their preferred option. He said the reply he received from the airline did not address the query.
This is what the response said.
“We don’t have a confirmed list of our cancellation [sic] yet as we do not know which flights will be cancelled. If a flight can departure [sic] it will be updated on the website, if not, passengers will be notified about the cancellation. In case you received a disruption notification [sic], we kindly advise you to follow the instruction provided in the email. Please be advised that we can waive the flight change fee just in that case if the flight is disrupted. I hope the above clarifies the matter. Kind regards, Ryanair Customer Service.”
So, what are the rules? If our health experts and the Department of Foreign Affairs say we should not travel more than 20km and warn against non-essential overseas travel, do airlines offer refunds or the opportunity to rebook even if the flights in question depart as scheduled?
We got in touch with our friends at Ryanair to find out how it would be handling such matters in the weeks ahead. We received no response. However, the Commission for Aviation Regulation has clarified that if an air carrier has not cancelled a flight, there is no entitlement to re-routing or a refund under the regulations.
"Just what is up with Irish Ferries?" started the mail from Richard Gem. "We wanted to change our Rosslare-Pembroke ferry crossing. According to Irish Ferries website this could be done online as the booking was more than five days ahead. However when I attempted to manage my booking online I was instructed first to 'click on edit passenger details below to update nationality and date of birth' and 'contact us on 0818 300 400 (ROI) or 08717 300 400 (GB) to change to another sailing'. So in fact it was not possible to change the booking online," he said.
With the online option apparently taken away from him, he did as he was told and contacted the company by phone. Or at least he tried to. “On three occasions since last Friday I have tried to speak on the phone to someone at Irish Ferries,” he wrote.
“I also emailed them last Friday with, so far, no response. Today, on phoning them for the third time, I was informed by an automated voice after 35 minutes on hold, that Irish Ferries were unable to take my call at this time but that I could leave a message if I wished. This I tried to do, only to be informed that the mailbox was full and could take no more messages. So far I have wasted nearly an hour and spent over €12 phoning Irish Ferries.”
We contacted Irish Ferries and received the following statement:
“Irish Ferries are unable to comment on individual customer details from a GDPR perspective, but can advise that if customers are trying to amend a booking online when the outward leg has been already travelled on, they will see an error message, and therefore need to make contact with us via one of our multiple contact channels – telephone, social media or email.
“We would also acknowledge that we are currently dealing with unprecedented large volumes of customers contacts due to the current Covid-19 pandemic, which have further increased as we approach the peak summer season. Irish Ferries have added additional resource in the last week to help deal with this, and we thank our customers for their patience and understanding as we work hard to get to all enquiries.”
Charlie Egan booked a return flight from Dublin to Vancouver which was due to leave on August 22nd and arrive back in Dublin on September 6th. He booked the flight last December and it was for a trip to celebrate his and his wife's 40th wedding anniversary.
"I have recently received notification that this route is now cancelled/suspended for 2020 and I have been rerouted via Toronto both directions ,which adds hours to our travel times both directions. I contacted Air Canada to seek a refund under EU261 rules as I do not wish to travel with this major change. We would have flown if our Government gave the okay since the Covid-19 issues."
He received a reply from Air Canada which more or less said that the airline does not come under rule EU261 and it has refused his request for a refund.
He sent us the email the company sent in relation to EU261.
“We realise you may disagree and view this approach as inconsistent with EU 261 regulations. However, as a Canadian carrier, we cannot be required to follow a legal regime that is in exact contradiction with its own national laws, following fundamental principles of international air law.”
So, what is the law? Can an airline which flies into and out of an EU airport simply say EU regulations do not apply to it? Our understanding was no. The law seemed very clear to us. If a person books a flight with Air Canada that departs from a Canadian airport then Canadian regulations apply, but if a person books a flight with the airline that departs from an EU airport, then EU regulations apply.
But just to be sure we got in touch with the European Consumer Centre which knows more about such things than we do. It said “it would appear the consumer was misinformed” and EU regulations do apply in this case. “If the matter is not resolved to the consumer’s satisfaction, they can consider making a complaint with the Commission for Aviation Regulation.” We also contacted Air Canada but received no response.
Then there was Grace O'Donoghue. "I'm sure you are inundated with queries since you began giving advice over the radio about travel plans during Covid-19, but I wonder if you could spare a minute to offer some advice, please?" her mail started.
“Myself and my mother were due to fly to France on Thursday, 4th June for a family wedding. Flights were Aer Lingus but it was actually booked through a booking engine which we didn’t realise at the time. Saw it was Aer Lingus and automatically booked them but stupidly didn’t put the info together to see we booked through third party agent.”
The flights were booked last October and then, on March 6th, Grace received an email from the booking engine which said that Aer Lingus had changed the flights and they would now be departing a day earlier and she needed to contact them immediately or risk losing the flights and the money.
“I spent all day on March 6th trying to contact the booking engine by phone, to no avail. I then used their online contact form as it was not possible to find an email address anywhere for them. When I didn’t hear back I decided to contact Aer Lingus for advice on March 12th.”
It was probably the worst of times to be contacting an airline.
“Then Covid-19 really hit Ireland,” the mail continued, so our reader “decided to hold off further contact due to this. On April 19th, Aer Lingus replied to my contact advising that as we booked through third party they could not deal with us. On May 3rd, I received a reply from the booking engine advising me that they had received my enquiry but I had to stop contacting them as it was adding to their load and they couldn’t deal with my enquiry until my flight was within 72 hours [of departure].”
So Grace decided then to wait as she had been told to. "Then I received an email from them on May 26th stating that I needed to contact them due to the change in my flights. I could not get through and again used contact form to contact them. Since yesterday I have been trying to phone them to no avail. Using Aer Lingus website, they no longer recognise our booking reference. The booking engine website is at a standstill, not allowing me to query anything. They state our flights are leaving tomorrow and Aer Lingus and Dublin airport websites show no flights from Dublin to Bordeaux tomorrow or Thursday."
She wondered what more she could have done to get her money back. Aer Lingus said the flight to Bordeaux had been cancelled but stressed that only the third party booking engine could process the refund.
And still the mails came.
"I got an email yesterday from Aer Lingus confirming that, as expected, my return flight from Miami later this month has been cancelled," wrote Eddie O'Sullivan. "However, they've been silent so far on the status of outbound flight to Orlando on June 17th. As it stands, therefore, if I seek a refund on my home-bound flight I run the risk of being stuck in Florida with no flight home. Are Aer Lingus obliged to refund me for both flights even though only the later one has been officially cancelled?"
In a statement Aer Lingus said the both our reader’s outbound and inbound flights have now been cancelled “and he will have received a notification from us to that effect. In this instance he is entitled to either a full refund, or if he would prefer he can avail of the voucher option on aerlingus.com.”
And finally, we received an email from Yvonne Traynor who was confused about where she stood when it came to partially cancelled flights.
"My mother was to fly return to Izmir in Turkey over a week ago, and this leg of the journey was cancelled. However, she would be due home on July 2nd and this part hasn't been cancelled and it happens to be the more expensive part."
Yvonne herself is in a similar situation. “Myself, husband and three kids were to fly to Malaga on July 23rd. This was cancelled a fortnight ago. But the return flight nine days later still hasn’t been cancelled.”
She said she would lose over €900 on the return flight if it is not cancelled. “What could you advise us to do in this situation? Clearly we won’t be travelling home from countries that we can’t travel to!”
The European Commission clarified details of this at the end of March. In the case of two flights which are part of the same contract in the event of cancellation of the outbound flight, passengers should be offered two options, the ECC told us. “They should be either reimbursed for both flights or re-routed on another flight for the outbound flight.
“In light of the above, the Regulation 261 applies to the flight to Izmir in Turkey and to Malaga in Spain, if the passenger was due to depart from an airport located in the territory of a member state of the EU and the flight in question was due to be operated by either an EU or non-EU air carrier. If both flights, outbound and return flights, are subject to a single booking and are part of the same contract, the passenger can seek reimbursement of the cost of the ticket.”