Airlines that broke the law over refunds for cancelled flights are already failing to meet the commitments made to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to speed up the process of refunding passengers, Which? has found.
Under EU law, airlines are obliged to refund passengers for cancelled flights within seven days, and could face enforcement action from the CAA if they don't.
In its review into airline behaviour, published last week, the CAA identified several airlines that weren't paying refunds 'sufficiently quickly', but it told Which? that it after they all promised to improve their performance.
The CAA said airlines should make refunds promptly and 'work towards getting as close to the seven days as possible'.
However, Which? found that three airlines identified by the CAA as not processing refunds fast enough - Ryanair, Tui and Virgin - are still taking several months to refund passengers in some cases.
The CAA told Ryanair it wasn't satisfied that it was taking 10 weeks or longer to process refunds and in July Ryanair published a commitment on its website that all refund requests up to the end of May would be cleared by the 31 July, but Which? has heard from passengers who are still waiting for refunds from as long ago as March.
Kirsty Ness requested a cash refund from Ryanair immediately after her flights were cancelled in late March, but on 20 April she received a voucher instead. Kirsty has called Ryanair several times to cash in the voucher, but she has yet to receive her refund.
Palliative care nurse Jeanette Howard was sent a voucher for her flights to Alicante that were cancelled on 20 March, even though she had applied for a cash refund. She says she's 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 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.
Passenger Jeff Palmer has been waiting 130 days for a refund he requested on 30 March, and another passenger told us he's been waiting 132 days for a refund for Virgin flights that were cancelled on 25 March, even though Virgin claims that since April it has increased its refund processing team five-fold to try to clear the backlog.
When Which? asked Virgin why it isn't refunding passengers within the 120 day timeframe it gave the CAA, a spokesperson said: 'We are aware that there are a portion of Virgin Atlantic bookings with pending refund requests which were incorrectly inputted and unfortunately now exceed120 days for processing. We are resolving this as a priority and any customers affected will have their refund processed as soon as possible.'
Tui was reprimanded by the CAA for automatically issuing vouchers and then making customers wait a further 28 days before they could apply for cash, and the airline promised to begin the cash refund process once a passenger is notified of a cancellation. Tui told the CAA that 'on average, cash refunds will be processed within 14 days'.
However, Tui still states on its website that customers must wait for a voucher before they can claim a cash refund, and some passengers whose flights were cancelled in March are still waiting for their money back.
Kath Lowe's flight from Manchester to Tenerife was cancelled on 29 April, but she hasn't received a voucher - or any communication - from Tui and until she does she can't claim a refund. She says she's tried calling Tui on many occasions but she's never managed to get through to its call centre.
Tui told us Kath was sent a voucher on 7 May, and suggested it may have 'got lost in her junk mail'. A spokesperson told us that the voucher information on the website refers to the policy for package holidays and that: '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.'
They added, 'we're really sorry to any customers who may have experienced delays in receiving their refund.'
UPDATE: Since Which? got in touch with Tui about Kath's case, she has now received a refund for her cancelled flight.
Which? is concerned that the regulator has set a precedent to allow airlines to disregard the law without fear of consequence or sanctions.
A spokesperson for the CAA told us 'We will review any supplementary evidence provided to us by Which?'.
'While our initial review has finished, we have been clear that 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'.
Which? is now also calling for the government to enhance the CAA's existing powers to allow it to more easily take swift and meaningful action against airlines that have repeatedly been exposed for disregarding the law and their passengers over the course of the pandemic.
The consumer champion believes this should be the first of a series of reforms to the travel industry, to help ensure the future of international travel from the UK and to help restore consumer trust in the sector.