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Published on Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Which? warns of permanent damage to consumer confidence in travel industry






Consumer champion Which? is warning that the consumer confidence in the travel industry could be permanently damaged unless the government takes 'swift and tangible' action.


Launching a 10-point plan to maintain trust, Which? acknowledged that the industry is facing 'unprecedented strain' as a result of the pandemic, with many firms unable to refund cancelled holidays within the legal timeframe without going bust.


As a result, it is asking the Government to extend the statutory 14-day period for issuing refunds to a maximum of one month to give operators some additional breathing space.


Which? also wants credit notes to be financially protected by the Government and it is calling for a Government Travel Guarantee Fund for companies unable to fulfil their obligations to consumers due to the pandemic.


In addition, it says the Government and the Civil Aviation Authority should force airlines to provide cash refunds for cancelled flights that have been booked both through agents and direct.


Which? has contacted 20 of the UK's biggest holiday companies to check their current refund policies and found that none of the 10 largest, including TUI, Jet2, is refunding holidaymakers within the required 14 days.


Some airlines and package travel providers are refusing to provide refunds, in a breach of their legal obligations to their customers, while others are providing vouchers or credit notes - which it said may prove to be worthless if holiday firms run into financial trouble.


Loveholidays has come under fire for telling customers they would only be able to accept voucher credit for their cancelled holidays, and would not be processing refunds any time soon. TUI was also criticised for not proactively offering refunds after cancelling holidays on mass, but has since amended its policy.


Only a handful of companies are refunding refunds as normal, including Trailfinders, Kuoni, Responsible Travel, Explore Worldwide, Llama Travel, Mountain Kingdoms, Friendship Travel and Vivid Travel, said Which?


On the Beach is also issuing cash refunds, although these are taking longer than the legal time frame as it will only pay the airline element of the refund when it receives this from the carrier, added the consumer champion.


Which? also contacted 10 of the UK's biggest airlines and found none is refunding passengers within the legal time frame, with one airline refusing to process refunds at all. 


Despite Ryanair initially being praised for its decision to refund customers, Which? has seen customer complaints that the airline is now asking them to accept a voucher valid for 12 months, or to join a refund queue and wait for their money back until the coronavirus outbreak has passed. 


Meanwhile, British Airways passengers have complained to Which? about being unable to complete a refund form online, and instead being directed to a phone line where they are often unable to speak to someone due to high call volumes.


"Which? recognises the travel industry is under huge strain, and would encourage holidaymakers to rebook if it suits their circumstances - but the government must first provide clarity about how customer money will be protected in these circumstances. 


"Which? has set out clear steps the government can take to support the industry and help it through this challenging period in its 10-point plan.


"The government must now work with regulators and the industry to implement these measures - to ensure that passengers who are unable to travel due to the coronavirus pandemic are not left out of pocket, that the damage caused to the sector so far is not permanent, and that consumer faith in the industry is restored," it said.


Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, added: "We do not want to see the industry suffer further as a result of this outbreak, but it cannot be on consumers to prop up airlines and travel firms, especially when so many will be in difficult financial situations of their own. 


"The government must urgently set out how it will support travel firms and airlines to ensure they can meet their legal obligations to refund customers for cancelled travel plans - and avoid permanent damage to trust and confidence in the travel industry."


Which? is also calling on the Foreign Office to give a definitive date for its travel warnings to give consumers some clarity when claiming refunds or rebooking, and it wants relax time-limits on making claims, existing policies to be extended - where relevant, and for insurers to work more closely with the travel industry and the government to ensure consumers are given clear advice about how and when to claim.


 

Tour operator

response to Which?

TUI UK

"We are proactively contacting all affected customers as fast as we can to help them amend their holiday to a future season. If they are unable to amend to a suitable alternative, we will discuss their various options with them. One option currently available for customers is to cancel the holiday and receive a full refund, however there is a delay in this process due to the large volumes of customers impacted."

Jet2holidays

"We are continuing to operate a fully staffed call centre, and even though our teams are subject to the same difficulties and restrictions as everyone else, they are working tirelessly to proactively contact customers in departure date order to discuss their options, one of which is rebooking their holiday to a later date. We believe that contacting customers in departure date order is the fairest way to deal with this. The number of calls we are receiving is unprecedented. We ask customers to bear in mind that contacting us will result in longer call waiting times, which is why we politely remind them to wait for us to be in touch."

On the Beach Travel

"On the Beach is making every effort to provide refunds to customers in line with our obligations under the Package Travel Directive - in cash, in full and within 14 days. Airlines, like the rest of the travel industry, are experiencing huge operational and cash-flow challenges, and the result of this is that there are currently significant delays in receiving refunds from many airlines. In cases where the flight refund is delayed by their airline, we have explained to our customers that we will split the refund into 2 parts. The first part for all holiday monies paid (excluding the flights) is refunded by us immediately from our trust.  We have already refunded over 30,000 bookings in cash for hotels, transfers and other ancillaries, and (apart from a brief period at the start of the process) we have refunded these sums within 14 days. The flight cost is then refunded as soon as physically possible following the airline's formal cancellation of the flight and receipt of the cash refund. At present, we can't confirm to customers when this will be, as we don't know how long it will take airlines to refund these sums, though we are urgently working to clarify this."

We Love Holidays

"We are issuing fully ATOL protected credit notes which customers can then exchange for cash refunds after a definite date if they do not wish to use them. At the moment, we have cancelled package holidays up to 7 May and are issuing refund credit notes to all these customers. As I am sure you are aware, these refund credit notes are fully ATOL protected, meaning there is no risk that customers will lose the money paid towards a cancelled holiday and indeed any new package holiday booked using it will continue to be protected by ATOL. The current date when customers can exchange their refund credit note for a full cash refund is on 31 July 2020, for package holiday refunds (or such later date that the Civil Aviation Authority, who administer the ATOL scheme, and ABTA may subsequently specify) and on the first anniversary of the date of issue of the refund credit note for hotel only bookings. Our policy remains under constant review."

Expedia Group

Did not respond - its website currently says: "With Coronavirus (COVID-19) continuing to impact travel around the world, our teams are handling an unprecedented number of requests, which means refunds are taking longer than normal. Thank you for your patience as we work to take care of our travelers as quickly as possible! If we charged you, your refund could take up to 30 days to process. (You'll see our brand name listed on your credit card statement.) If the hotel, airline, or car agency processed the charge, they'll determine the refund timeline. If you have questions, we'd recommend contacting them directly."

British Airways Holidays

"If a customer's holiday/flight has been cancelled, they should call us to discuss their options. They can rebook, refund or choose to take a voucher to travel at a later date. Refunds can be requested at any point up to 12 months after the start date of the journey."

easyJet Airline Company

"We're doing all we can to process refunds as quickly as possible, and we're striving to do this within 14 days where we can.  On average, it's taken us 13.4 days to process refunds to customers impacted by coronavirus. So, due to these exceptional circumstances, where it's taking a bit longer than we'd like, we'd like to thank customers for their patience and understanding. Some customers are able to amend their holiday instead if they would prefer."

BravoNext SA/Lastminute

"As we are experiencing an emergency and force majeure situation, our teams are reviewing every package holiday and working around the clock to provide a resolution to our customers. When selling flights, lastminute.com is playing the role of sole intermediary and has to follow the cancellation policies of the airline."

Travel Republic

"We've been working hard for several weeks behind the scenes to finalise our refund process and expect to have further news for customers soon. In the meantime we've given all our package holiday customers the option of a full refund, or credit notes as recommended by ABTA's latest guidelines for its members. These credit notes can be redeemed until the 31st December 2020, and offer a generous period for new departures until 31st December 2021 - which we believe offers our customers maximum flexibility to rebook their holiday if they so wish. Customers who accept a credit note and then change their mind in favour of a cash refund instead, can request this at any time and will be added to the refund process. Whether customers originally chose a refund, or took a credit note and then changed their mind, we're being clear that we expect that refund process to take longer than usual due to very high demand. However, we're working to refund customers as quickly as possible, and expect this to be well in advance of the credit note expiry date. Customers who do not redeem their credit note before its expiration date of 31st December 2020 will automatically be given a cash refund.

"We are being clear that, under the circumstances, we expect the refund process to take longer than usual. A process that would normally take weeks, will take longer due to very high demand. We fully understand the situation some of our customers are in and are doing everything in our power to be able to refund as quickly as possible."

Virgin Holidays

Automatically issuing credit notes, but refund is still available - "Refund requests made now for cancelled trips are taking longer than usual to be logged and processed and we're very grateful for our customers' continued patience as we deal with this unprecedented situation."

 



 

Airline

response to Which?

British Airways

"If a customer's flight has been cancelled, they should call us to discuss their options. They can rebook, refund or choose to take a voucher to fly at a later date. Refunds can be requested at any point up to 12 months after the start date of the journey."

easyJet

"We do aim to process claims in 28 days, however because of the increased volumes due to the pandemic, it means that unfortunately this could take longer."

Jet2

"We are continuing to operate a fully staffed call centre, and even though our teams are subject to the same difficulties and restrictions as everyone else, they are working tirelessly to proactively contact customers in departure date order to discuss their options, one of which is rebooking their holiday to a later date. We believe that contacting customers in departure date order is the fairest way to deal with this. The number of calls we are receiving is unprecedented. We ask customers to bear in mind that contacting us will result in longer call waiting times, which is why we politely remind them to wait for us to be in touch."

TUI

"We are proactively contacting all affected customers as fast as we can to help them amend their holiday to a future season. If they are unable to amend to a suitable alternative, we will discuss their various options with them. One option currently available for customers is to cancel the holiday and receive a full refund, however there is a delay in this process due to the large volumes of customers impacted."

Virgin Atlantic

"Refund requests made now for cancelled trips are taking longer than usual to be logged and processed and we're very grateful for our customers' continued patience as we deal with this unprecedented situation.

"To simplify the options for our Virgin Atlantic customers, and to provide immediate peace of mind, where a flight is cancelled, we're automatically holding the booking open for 12 months, with a customer credit equal to the value of the trip. For customers whose holidays will no longer be going ahead, we're automatically providing a voucher for the value of their trip. If the Virgin Atlantic credit or Virgin Holidays voucher is not used during the lifetime of their validity, customers will still be eligible to request a refund."

A tweet from the airline indicates they are currently aiming to refund within 90 days.

Ryanair

Did not respond to request for comment. Which? has seen customer complaints that the airline is now asking them to accept a voucher valid for 12 months, or to join a refund queue and wait for their money back until the coronavirus outbreak has passed..

Emirates

"We sincerely hope that our customers will choose to rebook and fly with us again at a later time, and that is why we're offering up to two years validity on their current tickets, or travel vouchers which can be redeemed for any Emirates product or service. Any fees for making a change to the tickets will be waived for tickets issued till 31 May 2020 for travel up to 31 August 2020. However, if they would still like to opt for a refund, we will process that. We would just like to seek our customers' understanding that refunds will take time as we have a significant backlog to manage."

Air France-KLM

"Air France and KLM are offering three options to passengers who are booked on flights that are scheduled to depart before 31 May 2020: change their travel date free of charge; change the destination of their journey; or obtain a voucher for non-refundable tickets of the same value as their ticket. Vouchers in case of cancelled flights and that have not been used after a period of 12 months, will be fully refunded. Faced with the exceptional circumstances created by the coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis, Air France and KLM believe that the issuance of a refundable voucher constitutes a fair solution and a reasonable balance between the protection of their passengers and the operational realities that every airline has to face."

Qantas

"We are priority-processing all regulatory refunds within the required time frames so if that's with the seven days then that is what we are aiming to do. However, as you'd appreciate we've basically stopped flying so there's a lot of customers/refunds/rebookings to be processed. Customers are also able to have the value of their ticket stored as a flight voucher that they can use up to the end of next year."

Etihad

"For tickets purchased within Europe or the United States (for Etihad flights cancelled before 31 July 2020 due to COVID-19 border closures), Etihad will also offer greater booking flexibility, Etihad Credit, or a refund if requested."

 


 

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  • Refunds what refunds

    Based on my sisters experience I am not believing what is written above. She booked with Tui who can cancelled the booking over 4 weeks ago a phone call was made by Tui to her to offer a re-book. This was refused and a refund offered and she is still waiting for the payment or even an update. I can imagine many others are in a similar boat. I suspect the travel industry has done itself a lot of permanaent damage by doing nothing and not communicating. Personally I find it distasteful that so many are openly breaking the regulations. Currently if they go bust then clients will get a refund albeit delayed. Whereas many are waiting and hoping but till when?

    By Paul Johnston, Wednesday, April 22, 2020

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