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Two million still waiting for lockdown flight refunds

Emma Lunn
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Emma Lunn

More than two million people haven’t received money back for flights they couldn’t board during the pandemic, accord to Which?

Since the UK went into its first lockdown in the middle of March last year, millions of people have had flight bookings that were not cancelled by the airline, but for reasons that were often out of their control they could not take.

This means that they were not legally entitled to a refund or guaranteed a successful claim through their travel insurance or bank.

Research from Which? has found that about 2.3 million Brits have been left out of pocket for flights that were not cancelled, despite circumstances often meaning they reasonably – or in some cases, legally – couldn’t travel.

Reasons for not flying

Many travellers were unable to fly because of national or local lockdowns or restrictions at their destination, or the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) advising against non-essential travel.

Many airlines continued to operate flights to countries with an FCDO warning against non-essential travel, on the basis that they needed to operate them as scheduled in order to facilitate essential travel.

Under EU 261 regulations, passengers flying on an EU-based carrier or flying from a country in the EU are entitled to a full refund within seven days if their flight is cancelled by the operator, but the regulations do not currently offer passengers any protection if their flight is not cancelled.

However, in some circumstances where passengers couldn’t travel, it could be argued that the contract between the passenger and the airline had been ‘frustrated’.

Passengers in these circumstances would often have only been given the choice of rebooking their flight or losing their money. Rebooking may have meant paying a significant difference in fare if the new flights were more expensive, and trying to choose new dates without knowing when international travel is likely to resume again.

Of those who told Which? they didn’t get their money back, half (49%) claimed they could not travel because of national or regional lockdown restrictions instructing them to stay at home.

While during the first national and local lockdowns instructions against non-essential travel were not always written into law, many passengers did not fly due to government guidance.

Quarantine woes

Stephen Middleton, from Manchester, booked flights with Ryanair to Spain with his fiancée in July 2020, after the government allowed foreign travel again.

They were due to fly in August, but paid more than £280 to move the flights to Christmas Eve after it was announced they would have to quarantine on their arrival back to the UK.

But when the time came for them to take their rearranged flight, they were again unable to travel because of restrictions at the Spanish border preventing them from entering the country. Stephen was told he could move his flights again, but would have had to pay more money to do so.

Legal rights

Which? first raised the issue of people being unable to get their money back for flights they couldn’t take because of lockdown with both the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in March 2020.

The consumer champion has shared its findings with the CMA to aid its investigation into whether airlines have breached consumers’ legal rights by failing to offer cash refunds for flights they could not lawfully take because of lockdown restrictions.

Which? is advising anyone considering booking flights for this summer to wait until the situation around international travel becomes clearer. It also advise to book a package holiday rather than a flight-only booking for stronger passenger protections, and only with a trusted provider that offers a generous and flexible booking policy.

Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said: “For almost a year now, Which? has been hearing from frustrated passengers who’ve been left out of pocket for flights they were unable to take, often through no fault of their own, because the flight went ahead as scheduled. While some have successfully been able to claim on their travel insurance or through their bank, others have been left high and dry.

“With non-essential travel currently illegal, airlines must play their part in protecting public health by ensuring no one is left out of pocket for abiding by the law and not travelling. All airlines should allow passengers the option to cancel for a full refund, as well as fee-free rebooking options, while these restrictions remain in place.”