An estimated 2.3 million people in the UK have not received their money back for flights they couldn’t take during the pandemic, according to new research from Which? Travel.
Lockdowns, restrictions on entry to their destination and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) advice against non-essential travel were among the reasons cited by passengers for being unable to travel.
Under EU 261 regulations, passengers flying on an EU-based carrier or flying from a country in the EU are entitled to a full refund within seven days if their flight is cancelled by the airline. However, these regulations don’t offer passengers any protection if their flight is not cancelled. And many flights have continued to operate to allow essential travel throughout the pandemic.
Passengers whose flight is not cancelled are not legally entitled to a refund from the airline or guaranteed a successful claim via their travel insurance or bank. For many the only option was to rebook their flight for a date when they hoped international travel would be possible. However flight change fees and fare differences can make this more prohibitively expensive.
Unable to travel due to lockdown laws
A Which? survey of 2,001 adults, weighted to represent the UK population, revealed that the most common reason customers couldn’t travel was because of lockdown. 49% claimed they couldn’t take their flight because of national or regional lockdown laws instructing them to stay at home.
Ayesha Ellis, paid £1,600 for Ryanair flights for her and her family to travel to Gran Canaria on 13 February 2021. These were booked almost a year earlier in March 2020, before the UK went into its first lockdown. Despite the UK’s current lockdown making non-essential travel illegal, the flight went ahead as scheduled.
Ryanair told Ayesha that the cost to rearrange the flights would be €95 per person per flight – a total of €760 more for her family of four – plus the fare difference for the new flights. The flights were booked before Ryanair dropped its flight change fee on 10 June 2020. Ryanair says she cannot be refunded a non-refundable air fare, which “she herself has chosen not to change to a later date”. Ayesha told Which? she will never use the airline again.
The competition regulator has launched an investigation into the refusal of airlines to offer customers cash refunds for flights they could not take because national, regional or local lockdown laws in the UK prevented them from travelling.
Unable to get to the airport
Not all lockdowns have been written into law – some have just been advisory, though it’s very difficult for consumers to tell the difference.
Rebekah Evans, from Barry in Wales, was caught out by local lockdown advice. At the beginning of 2020 she booked flights from Bristol to Turkey for her and her family in October with Easyjet via an online travel agent. These cost more than £2,000. Two weeks before their holiday, Vale of Glamorgan entered a local lockdown that was set to be reviewed the day before they were due to fly. Rebekah did not rebook the flights or accept a voucher in the hope that they would be allowed to fly if the local lockdown was lifted.
When the date came though, the Welsh government announced a rolling lockdown, instructing people not to leave Wales unless for emergencies. At that time, England was not in a lockdown, so the flight went ahead.
EasyJet told us ‘At the time of Miss Evans’ flight our lockdown policy only covered countries we operated to and from. However, we were providing customers with the flexibility to change their flights without a change fee up to 14 days before departure. We do require customers to contact us ahead of the flight departing to select an alternative option. Unfortunately Miss Evans only contacted us after the flight had operated. As a gesture of goodwill, on this occasion, we will be in touch to offer a voucher for the value of her flights.”
EasyJet said its flexible lockdown policy for all of the UK was in place 5 November to 2 December and again from 20 December to the present – ‘so passengers can receive refunds even on flights that continue to operate’.
Travel restrictions at the destination
Just over a quarter (27%) of those left out of pocket said they were unable to fly because of restrictions in place at their destination that would prevent them from entering the country.
Stephen Middleton, booked flights with Ryanair to Spain with his fiancée in July 2020, after the government allowed foreign travel again. They were due to fly in August, but paid a fare difference of more than £280 to move the flights to Christmas Eve after it was announced they would have to quarantine on their arrival back to the UK.
When the time came for them to take their rearranged flight, they were again unable to travel because of restrictions at the Spanish border preventing them from entering the country. Stephen was told he could move his flights again, but would have had to pay even more money to do so. He decided not to.
Ryanair told Which? that passengers who book non refundable flights are not entitled to refunds if they choose not to travel on flights which have operated. However, passengers can avoid being out of pocket by ‘availing of Ryanair’s change facility, even for bookings which were made prior to any Covid-19 flight restrictions being introduced.’
Passengers following government advice
Others said they were unable to travel because the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) had advised against all non-essential travel to their destination. Nearly four in 10 (37%) cited this as their reason for not flying.
While those with package holidays would have been entitled to a full refund in these circumstances, those with flight-only bookings are not. Airlines continued to operate flights to countries with an FCDO warning against non-essential travel.
While not illegal, travelling against FCDO advice usually invalidates travel insurance, and could potentially put your health at risk by visiting a country with high rates of infection. Additionally, many of those returning from these destinations would have also had to quarantine for two weeks after returning to the UK, with three in 10 (28%) of people saying the need to quarantine prevented them from travelling.
Which? advises anyone considering booking flights for this summer to wait until the situation around international travel becomes clearer, and when the time comes, to book a package holiday rather than a flight-only booking for stronger passenger protections, and only with a trusted provider that offers a generous and flexible booking policy.