Britain’s aviation regulator has demanded improvements from many airlines in refunding passengers whose flights are cancelled.
In a review of the industry’s performance since the coronavirus pandemic began, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has criticised British Airways, easyJet, Ryanair and other carriers for delays in paying back air fares.
Jet2 is the only UK airline to be praised for “providing refunds promptly”, along with the US carriers American Airlines and United.
Under European air passengers’ rights rules, airlines are supposed to refund travellers in cash and in full within a week of the departure date of the flight.
But carriers have hit back, insisting they have done their best in extraordinary circumstances.
Richard Moriarty, chief executive of the CAA, said: “Although we have taken into account the serious operational challenges many airlines have faced, we have been clear that customers cannot be let down in this way, and that airlines must pay refunds as soon as possible.
“There is still work to do. We have required commitments from airlines as they continue the job of paying customer refunds. Should any airline fall short of the commitments they have made, we will not hesitate to take any further action where required.”
Virgin Atlantic is heavily criticised for the extreme delay in paying refunds. The report says: “Initially the airline was taking up to 60 days to process refund requests. However, the airline’s performance became significantly worse and it provided a commitment to consumers that the maximum wait would be 120 days.”
The airline has now committed to processing all claims made in August within 80 days, all claims made in September within 60 days and all claims made in October within 30 days.
Corneel Koster, chief customer officer at Virgin Atlantic, said: “The huge volume of refund requests we have received, combined with the constraints on our teams and systems during the pandemic, has meant that refunds have been taking longer than usual to process, and we sincerely apologise for this.
“Despite the incredible efforts of our teams, we know we have not lived up to the high standards we set ourselves, but we will do everything in our power to earn back the trust of our customers.”
British Airways was criticised for directing customers seeking refunds to a telephonic dead-end. Investigators from the CAA made test calls to British Airways, but the report says they were “unable to speak to an agent to discuss refunds, with its calls terminated following a recorded message”.
A BA spokesperson said: “We are doing everything we can in these difficult and unprecedented circumstances to help our customers and our incredible staff have answered well over two million calls since the beginning of March.
“We have provided more than 1.67 million customers with cash refunds and more than 1.3 million with vouchers to fly with us that they can use right up until April 2022.
“We will always provide a refund if a customer is eligible and we’re offering flexibility if any of our customers need to change their flights.”
Britain’s biggest budget airline, easyJet, is accused of “not processing refund requests sufficiently quickly” and “having a sizeable backlog of refund requests”.
A spokesperson for the Luton-based airline said it had experienced “an unprecedented number of cancellations”. More than 250,000 flights have been cancelled since March, 100 times the normal levels.
“These volumes were compounded by reduced staffing levels in our customer contact centres caused by local lockdowns and unfortunately led to much longer processing times than usual,” the spokesperson said.
“We have already invested in increasing our contact centre resources and continue to invest along with extending opening times to ensure our customers are getting refunds in a timely way. We are currently processing refunds for customers in less than 30 days.”
Ryanair is heavily criticised in the report, which says: “Initially the airline was taking 10 weeks or even longer to process refund requests.
“The CAA was not satisfied with this level of performance and requested that Ryanair provide it with commitments to reduce the time taken to process refunds.”
The Irish carrier is currently promising to pay 90 per cent of refunds by the end of July.
Earlier this month the chief executive of Ryanair DAC, the main part of the airline, told The Independent: “We have given out close to €750m in vouchers and in cash refunds.
“I would say actually we’re a beacon, we’re doing it right. We are making our way through this, we are giving regular updates.
“There’s up to 30 million journeys that were cancelled. It is truly extraordinary.”
Some foreign airlines, including the Canadian carriers Air Canada and Air Transat, are also criticised by the CAA.
But European carriers including Air France, its partner KLM and Lufthansa of Germany, were not included in the review.
The Independent has received dozens of complaints about these airlines offering only vouchers rather than cash for cancelled flights.
An aviation insider said the review showed UK carriers in an unfair light, because EU airlines are not included.
“The consumer is presented with a picture that UK airlines have performed poorly on refunds and must be worse than their EU counterparts. This is far from the case.”
The CAA said: “We have today written to a further 30 major European and international airlines that operate services to and from the UK to highlight the results of our review, and to warn them not to deny consumers their right to a refund.
“We will not hesitate to take further action against any airlines where necessary.”