Coronavirus: Airline ticket refunds no straightforward affair

Thousands of flights across Europe were cancelled since governments imposed travel bans to stop the spread of COVID-19; while many airlines are paying customers back, some are not

Thousands of flights across Europe were cancelled since governments imposed travel bans to stop the spread of COVID-19, hitting business travel and Easter school holidays. But while many airlines are paying customers back, some are not.

Passengers within the European Union already benefit from some of the world’s toughest compensation rights, receiving meal vouchers for short flight delays as well as being able to claim compensation for things as small as on-board coffee spills. In fact, over the years, airlines have fought countless legal battles to clarify when exactly they need to pay out for flight delays, cancellations or boarding issues.

However, airlines seem unable to cope with the unprecedented influx of refund requests during the pandemic: Ryanair, one of Malta’s most popular airlines due to its low-cost flights has started telling its customers that they will have to wait until “the COVID-19 emergency has passed” if they want a refund for a cancelled flight.

Initially, the Dublin-based carrier had said it would process refunds within 20 working days but has since back-tracked and issuing credit notes.

But this makes Ryanair and other airlines where customers have yet to see refunds materialise, in breach of EU law. At the beginning of April, the European Union issued a statement, saying that EU law required reimbursements to be made within seven days. The legislation, which dates to 2004, sets no time limit for the validity of travel vouchers.

“Airlines must refund cancelled flight tickets,” EU Transport Commissioner Adina Valean said. “They can of course also offer a voucher but – and this is very important – only if the customer agrees to accept this.”

Apart from offering cash refunds, Air Malta is also offering alternatives, which it said were intended to ensure the ongoing partnership with its customers who could not benefit from immediate re-routing.

The airline said the offers were more flexible and included travel vouchers that range from future credits to an extra 30% travel voucher of the value of the fare purchased. Air Malta is also allowing customers to change their destination and choose a new date within 12 months from the date of the original flight free of charge.

Other airlines such as EasyJet took another approach, removing the option to request a refund on its site and instead steering their passengers to accept flight vouchers. Customers who were prepared to rebook for future flights or take a voucher were able to do so swiftly. However, customers who wanted refunds were allegedly told that it wasn’t possible at the time.

However, the airline has since reintroduced the option of a cash refund. EasyJet said customers could claim a refund through its call centre, acknowledging that there are currently “higher than average wait times.”

WizzAir are also offering refunds. However, due to the unprecedented number of emergency cancellations, it said the process would take longer than usual. The airline said that customers who decide to cash out will only be eligible for 100% of the original fare without the lucrative 20% mark-up.

This is because customers who had booked through the airline’s app were given 120% of the original price, which would be automatically uploaded to the customer’s WIZZ account in the form of credit on Wizz Air products and services for 24 months.

Volotea, another airline flying from Malta, is refunding passengers, but any requests or claims might take a significantly longer period, citing at least six weeks.

The airline is also offering vouchers which can be used for 12 months to book a new flight once its operations resume.

Cancel at your own risk

A general consensus among airlines in Europe is that refunds only appear to be provided if the flight is cancelled by the airlines themselves. Passengers who decided to cancel flights that were still scheduled to go ahead, appear to be out of luck. Under EU legislation, a money-back option arises only when a flight is grounded by an airline. Passengers who cancel their own flights might be offered vouchers by the carriers but aren’t legally entitled to a refund even if the vouchers go unused.