Virgin Atlantic’s reputation has been devastated by its failure to refund customers after cancellations.
Our survey* of customers of the big six airlines in the UK shows that Virgin only refunded 3% within the legally required period of seven days after a cancellation.
Only 13% of Virgin customers and 13% of Ryanair customers were satisfied with the customer service. And just 16% of Virgin customers and 26% of Ryanair customers were satisfied with the refund offer.
Even after 28 days, only a handful of Virgin Atlantic customers had got their money back and a large number – almost a third – were still waiting after three months.
The results were very similar to those of Ryanair, but the low-cost airline has long had a reputation for poor customer service.
Other airlines, while also largely failing to refund within seven days, were faster and were rated better.
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How long did Ryanair take to refund its customers?
Not a single Ryanair customer in our survey received a cash refund within seven days of a cancellation. Only 5% received it within 28 days and almost a third were still waiting after three months.
Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, said in autumn 2020 that it had refunded all of its customers who had asked for a refund up until July, but research by Which? conducted in November 2020 found that this was demonstrably untrue. At that point, it wasn’t hard to find examples of people who had, months later, only received a voucher they didn’t want.
When we contacted Ryanair in November, a spokesperson told us: ‘All Ryanair passengers who have requested a refund since our offices reopened on 1 June have now received these refunds. There is no backlog of refunds.’
Ryanair customer satisfaction score: 13%
How long did Virgin Atlantic take to refund its customers?
While Virgin did refund a few customers in our survey within seven days, only 3% received their money within 28 days – even worse than Ryanair. And 31% were still waiting after three months.
Customers calling to chase their refunds reported long, frustrating waits on hold, only to be cut off when they finally did get through. Understandably, respondents to our survey were extremely disappointed in what used to be considered a good airline.
Virgin Atlantic apologised for the issues it had and thanked customers for their patience. A spokesperson said: ‘As planned, we completed the backlog of refunds in November and returned to processing refunds within normal timeframes. Since 1 March 2020, we’ve processed c.£550m worth of cash refunds to Virgin Atlantic customers, comprising c.245,000 refund claims. As soon as we identified any refunds over 120 days, they were escalated for review and immediate payment. These incidences were a very small proportion of the thousands of refunds successfully provided within the committed timeframe.’
Virgin Atlantic customer satisfaction score: 13%
How long did easyJet take to refund customers?
Only 4% of easyJet customers told us that they received their refund within seven days. That would mean in 96% of those cases the airline was breaking the law. However, relatively few customers had to wait for as long as those of Ryanair or Virgin – just 3% were still waiting after three months.
Perhaps as a result, its customer satisfaction ratings were better than those of either airline – see our last survey and latest updates here.
easyJet customer satisfaction score: 45%
How long did British Airways take to refund customers?
British Airways was the only airline that managed to refund 52% of its customers in our survey within seven days. Only 2% were waiting more than three months. Despite this, many passengers were disappointed by how long it took to receive their money after a cancellation.
At the start of the pandemic, it only offered refund credit notes and passengers who wanted a full refund had to call its overstretched call centre. You can see how well it did last time we carried out a full survey here.
British Airways told us: ‘We have been doing everything we can to help our customers and our teams continue to work around the clock to provide refunds as quickly as possible. We value the loyalty of our customers and appreciate their patience.’
British Airways customer satisfaction score: 50%
How long did Tui take to refund its customers?
While most of Tui’s customers have package holidays, which operate under different rules, some also bought flight-only deals. Some 21% of these were refunded within seven days of cancellations – much better than easyJet, Ryanair or Virgin, but still not great. And 62% were refunded within 28 days.
At the start of the pandemic it made customers wait on hold to its call centre to request a refund, but in May it introduced a new online system, which made the process much simpler and quicker. Satisfaction levels have probably improved since then.
It apologised to customers for the issues faced and told us: ‘Since earlier this summer, customers have been automatically refunded so they don’t need to call us or request this.’
Tui customer satisfaction score: 57%
How long did Jet2 take to refund its customers?
Just over a third of Jet2 customers received a refund within seven days, but 83% received it within 28 days of flight cancellations – the best of any airline we looked at. Its customer satisfaction scores were much better than those of other airlines and it remains a Which? Recommended Provider.
Jet2 customer satisfaction score: 76%
How booking with online travel agents can make things even worse
Although many people who booked direct with airlines had a hard time getting their refund, those who booked flight-only deals through online travel agents often suffered even more.
We’ve reported on passengers who’ve been caught in a war of words between Ryanair and Loveholidays, with both of them insisting the other is responsible for delays in receiving their money.
Some agents have even tried to charge to process refunds.
Our advice is to avoid using online travel agents to book flight-only deals as they often add further charges on top, such as luggage allowance or selecting seats. If there are cancellations, booking with an online travel agent can also make it much more complicated to get a refund. While the airline is still legally responsible, they will often try to insist you claim through the agent and customers can be stuck in the middle.
Action needed from the regulator
With so many people having waited months for refunds, Which? is calling on the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to act in response to any airlines found to be breaking the law. Nobody should be left waiting beyond the legal time frame to get their money back if they have a flight cancelled.
Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said:
“As the UK approaches the anniversary of the first nationwide lockdown, it’s vital that lessons are learned from the previous handling of refunds and cancellations. Airlines cannot be allowed to continue to behave in this way, so the CMA and CAA must be ready to act if any are found to still be breaking the law on refunds.”
*Which? Travel survey
In September, we asked 1,559 people about their experiences of claiming a refund for a flight cancelled during the pandemic.