Approx 2.3M In UK Denied Flight Refunds Amid Lockdowns

By Lucia Osborne-Crowley
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Law360, London (February 19, 2021, 12:00 PM GMT) -- Approximately 2.3 million British people have not been been able to claim refunds or travel insurance for flights and holidays they were unable to take during the COVID-19 lockdowns because their trips were not technically canceled by airlines, a consumer group reported on Friday.

Passengers with tickets whose flights were not canceled by an airline, but who were prevented from flying by travel restrictions since last March, have not been legally entitled to a refund or guaranteed a successful claim through their travel insurance or bank, Which? 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," Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said.  

European Union regulations ensure that passengers flying with a carrier based in the bloc or flying from a member state are entitled to a full refund within seven days if their flight is canceled by the operator. But the rules do not cover cases in which the flights went ahead, but where some customers were legally or reasonably unable to catch them.

Half of the travelers that Which? spoke to in a survey of 2,000 adults in the U.K. this month said they could not travel because of national or regional lockdown restrictions that instructed them to stay at home. Another quarter, 27%, said they could not fly due to restrictions in the areas they were scheduled to visit.

Passengers in this situation were often offered only the option of rebooking their flight with the airline rather than a full refund. This frequently meant paying the difference if the rebooked flight was more expensive. It also meant that passengers had to try to guess when it would next be safe to fly.

"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," Boland said.

One customer in Wales told Which? that she booked flights costing £2,000 ($2,800) from Bristol, southwest England, to Turkey in October with budget airline easyJet via an online travel agent. She was initially offered a rebooking voucher, but declined it as she hoped that restrictions would be lifted by the time she flew.

But, on the day of her flight, the Welsh government announced a rolling lockdown, instructing people not to leave Wales unless for emergencies. She was offered the chance to rebook her travel only when Which? intervened.

Another customer paid £1,600 for flights with another budget airline, Ryanair, that she was unable to take because of lockdown. She was faced with total excess fees of €760 ($922) when she tried to rebook.

Regulators have also clamped down on airlines that refuse to refund flights that were missed amid the pandemic.

Britain's antitrust watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority, threatened to take travel booking service Lastminute.com to court this month after it failed to refund thousands of customers for holidays that were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CMA said in December that it has launched a probe into whether airlines failed to refund customers for flights they could not take because of pandemic-related government travel restrictions. The watchdog said in October 2020 that Virgin Holidays had committed to refund £203 million to travelers after the company was threatened with court action.

--Additional reporting by Irene Madongo. Editing by Joe Millis.

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