Major airlines TUI, Virgin Atlantic and TUI are failing short on promises to refund customers, a consumer watchdog says.
It comes after the operators were already rapped by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and told to speed up their refund process several months ago.
Despite this passengers are still waiting for refunds to be processed as far back as March, consumer rights champion Which? found.
The CAA said the companies were failing to refund passengers ‘sufficiently quickly’, with all three companies vowing to improve their performance before any action was taken.
Which? found that Ryanair, Tui and Virgin are still falling short of the promises they made, prompting concerns that the regulator’s enforcement powers may not be fit for purpose, The Mirror report.
The CAA told Ryanair it wasn’t satisfied that it was taking 10 weeks or longer to process refunds, and that airlines offering vouchers should also be offering passengers the choice of a cash refund.
Following the regulator’s review, Ryanair published a commitment on its website that all refund requests up to the end of May would be cleared by July 31.
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But some Ryanair passengers are still waiting for refunds from March, with some – including palliative care nurse Jeanette Howard – still trying to get cash refunds after they were initially sent vouchers despite requesting cash refunds.
Ms Howard has called the airline "on a daily basis" since late April to ask to exchange the voucher for cash, but she’s still waiting for her money back.
Virgin Atlantic, meanwhile, told the CAA its maximum waiting time for refunds is 120 days, but some passengers have been trying to get refunds from the airline for longer than four months.
Jeff Palmer and his wife were due to fly with the airline to Vegas on April 9 but requested a refund on March 31 after the flights were cancelled.
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He said he has tried "every method under the sun" to contact them, having received emails telling him it would be 90 days, then 50, then another 14, before receiving a refund for his flight but not his wife's – despite it being part of the same booking.
Tui was reprimanded by the CAA for issuing vouchers and then making customers wait a further 28 days before they could apply for their money back.
Tui told the CAA that "on average, cash refunds will be processed within 14 days".
However, despite telling the regulator it is no longer automatically issuing vouchers, Tui still states on its website that customers must wait for a voucher before they can claim a cash refund.
Kath Lowe’s Tui flight from Manchester to Tenerife was cancelled on 29 April, but she hasn’t received a voucher – or any other communication – from Tui and until she does she can’t claim a refund.
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She says she’s tried calling Tui on many occasions but she’s never managed to get through to its call centre.
Following its review, the CAA said a number of airlines have committed to speeding up the time it is taking to process refunds without requiring enforcement action, and that it would continue to monitor those airlines and continue to push for further improvements.
It said it would consider if enforcement action was appropriate if airlines failed to meet their commitments.
However it said its current powers are not well suited to swift action, and it can take a considerable period of time for a case to come before the courts.
Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said: "Passengers must be able to rely on a regulator that has effective powers to protect their rights – especially at a time of unprecedented turmoil. The government needs to step up and ensure the CAA has the tools it needs to hold airlines to account, or risk consumer trust in the travel industry being damaged beyond repair."
A Tui spokesperson said: "Customers with cancelled flight only bookings which were due to depart before 11 July were issued refund credit vouchers, and could then apply for a cash refund via our online form. These refunds were processed within 28 days.
"Customers with cancelled flight only bookings which were due to depart from 11 July onwards will automatically receive cash refunds. These refunds will be processed within 14 days.
"We’re really sorry to any customers who may have experienced delays in receiving their refund."
Tui also confirmed a voucher was sent to Ms Lowe in May but said it may have been lost in junk mail. They’ve now requested for this to be cancelled and a refund to be issued.
A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson 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.
"Since April, we have been focussed on making improvements wherever possible. We’ve boosted the size of the team dedicated to processing refunds five-fold, with over 200 people now directly involved.
"This has increased our capacity to process a greater number of refunds, more quickly and we continue to minimise the wait time for existing refund requests.
"Thanks to the progress made, we are steadily reducing the maximum processing time for each new Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays cash refund. For customers requesting a refund in August, we expect the maximum processing time to be 80 days, from the date the refund is requested. For those requesting a refund in September, we expect it to take a maximum of 60 days, and then reduce to 30 days for refunds requested in October, before returning to normal levels.
"Up until recently we have been committed to processing existing refunds within a maximum of 120 days, from the date the refund is requested, and we inform each customer when this is done by email. The timeframe begins from the date the refund is requested and acknowledged by a customer agent, not the date the flight is cancelled.
"We are aware that there are a portion of Virgin Atlantic bookings with pending refund requests which were incorrectly inputted and unfortunately now exceed 120 days for processing. This was an administration error and as soon as this was identified we urgently investigated. We are resolving this as a priority and any customers affected will have their refund processed as soon as possible."
A Ryanair spokesperson said: "Ryanair has issued in excess of €750m in cash refunds, vouchers and free moves.
"We have cleared over 90% of the cash refund backlog and are making rapid progress on clearing all remaining refund requests.
"We call on the CAA to take urgent action against unauthorised third party screen scrapers and to ensure that they provide us with real customer information.
"Thousands of our customers are still being prevented from receiving their refund due to unauthorised third party screen scrapers who are providing Ryanair with fake email addresses or virtual credit card details that do not belong to our customers.
"Any customer who has booked with an unauthorised third party screen scraper should contact Ryanair directly."
The CAA said it would review supplementary evidence provided by Which? on top of the 12,000 submitted during the review, but still needs "to see individual examples in order to consider what further action is needed".
"We will continue to monitor performance and should any airline fall short of the commitments they have made to us, we will take further action as required," they added.
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