Coronavirus cancellations: Holidaymakers in danger of losing thousands of euro

Which? calls for Covid-19 not be used as excuse to undermine consumer protections

As airlines worldwide idle thousands of aircraft due to the coronavirus pandemic, they are facing the unprecedented problem of finding a place to park them. The number of planes in storage has doubled to more than 5,000 since the start of the year.

 

A long-established system of EU-wide travel protections is at risk of breaking down due to the Covid-19 pandemic with many holidaymakers in danger of losing thousands of euro, according to one of the leading consumer watchdogs in Europe.

The British-based consumer champion Which? has said it has been inundated with messages and requests for help from people facing the loss of large sums as airlines and package travel providers seem unwilling to meet their legal obligations to issue refunds for cancelled flights and holidays.

While Which? has accepted the current situation is unprecedented, it has demanded that the crisis not be used as an excuse to undermine consumer protections.

It cited examples of flights not being cancelled by some airlines despite advice from governments that people should not travel to many locations around Europe, with airlines seeking instead to offer passengers flight changes to more expensive ones in the future.

It said airline customers were also being offered vouchers instead of refunds with many not getting clear guidance about what the next steps would be.

The Which? experience mirrors that of this newspaper which has been contacted by many readers in recent days who are increasingly concerned about planned holidays and confused about their rights in the face of the crisis.

Irish Times readers have complained about airlines not cancelling flights to locations despite travel bans covering those countries being imposed. Others have said that airlines and tour operators are not offering refunds for upcoming trips and are instead offering credit notes and free switches to alternate – and frequently more expensive – flights.

All flights on EU carriers within or into the EU and all flights leaving from an EU airport are protected by the EU’s Denied Boarding Regulation, which requires refunds or rerouting when flights are cancelled.

People have also been in touch with both The Irish Times and Which? to complain that travel agents are refusing to offer refunds for cancelled holidays, despite travel regulations and are instead offering credit notes or rebooking.

Under EU-wide legislation holidaymakers should be entitled to a full refund if a package holiday is cancelled because of extraordinary circumstances at the destination.

“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.

Huge challenge

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”.

The rights of Irish people who have seen their travel plans descend into chaos and confusion were partially clarified yesterday 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.