FAMILIES who opted for travel vouchers when their holidays were cancelled during the pandemic face them expiring before they can use them.
Both British Airways and easyJet have been accused of going against EU guidelines in refusing to refund the vouchers if they are unused.
The travel industry has previously called for passengers to choose vouchers over monetary compensation to help airlines and tour operators faced with millions of cancellations.
Vouchers range from 12 months to 24 months, although with airlines continuing to cancel routes and flights, many travellers may be unable to use them before they expire.
According to Which?, the EU guidelines recommend that airlines should automatically refund vouchers 14 days after they expire, yet this is not a legal requirement.
Ryanair's vouchers can be transferred into refunds at any time – however, BA and easyJet warn that once a voucher is chosen, it cannot be changed to a cash refund.
Prior to the pandemic, EU Regulation 261 meant passengers who had their flights cancelled while travelling in the EU could be given a full refund, although this was hindered by the pandemic with airlines instead offering the vouchers.
Some passengers claim the airlines didn't give them the choice.
Jackie Harbridge and her husband paid £2,118 for flights to San Francisco with BA, and said she was sent a voucher despite requesting a refund.
When she refuted this over the phone with the airline, she was told that as she had been given vouchers, she could no longer get a refund.
She explained: "I was completely misguided by the instruction in BA’s Manage My Booking, which specifically quoted ‘Refund’ but turned out to be for a voucher, which is completely useless to us."
While BA and easyJet allow voucher holders to transfer them to someone else, such as friends or family, many may still be unable to redeem them before they expire – leaving many thousands of pounds out of pocket.
What are airlines offering for cancelled flights?
BA explain on their website: "If you would like to claim a voucher to the value of your booking, please complete the voucher form. Vouchers can be used as payment, or part payment, for a future booking.
"If you do not wish to rebook or claim your voucher, you can contact us to discuss your refund options."
Passengers should call the airline on 0800 727 800
EasyJet explain: "If your flight is cancelled you can switch to another flight [without being charged a change fee], or select to get an easyJet voucher that you can redeem at a later date by selecting “manage disruption” in Manage Bookings.
"If these options are not suitable and you would prefer a refund, you can request this yourself via Manage Bookings."
For cancelled Ryanair flights, the airline says: "If your flight is cancelled there are two options available to you to choose from. You can either apply for a refund or change your cancelled flight for free..
"If you wish to claim a full refund for the cancelled flight, to log into your MyRyanair account and follow the steps for a refund.
"Refunds will be processed, within 7 working days, back to the form of payment used for the original booking.
The airline explains: "You can request a refund credit note to use to rearrange your plans.
"All you need to do is log in to Manage My Booking, click 'cancel flights' and you’ll be given a refund credit note to rearrange your getaway.
"If you’d prefer a refund, please wait for us to get in touch with further details. We're proactively contacting all affected customers in departure date order, which we think is the fairest way – please be patient with us as we do this."
Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said: "BA and EasyJet must immediately make it clear that passengers will not face losing their money if they are unable to use a voucher, while all airlines should be offering cash refunds to passengers prevented from travelling by lockdown laws.
“Major airlines have acted shamefully and without fear of consequences during this pandemic – the government must urgently review the CAA’s powers as part of its aviation recovery plan to ensure passengers have a regulator that can effectively stand up for them."
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has told passengers who were given a voucher when they requested a refund to go through the airline's alternative dispute resolution scheme, such as CEDR with British Airways or CDRL with easyJet.
An easyJet spokesperson said: "For passengers who have chosen a voucher as compensation for their cancelled flight, we would only reverse this and offer a refund in exceptional circumstances as a gesture of goodwill if the customer’s circumstances justify it (eg. A school group no longer able to re-travel).
A British Airways spokesperson said: "We do not auto-issue vouchers, they can only be issued when a customer has requested them by filling out the form. Our website is clear that when filling out the form it is to apply for vouchers.
“Customers are always entitled to a cash refund if their flight has been cancelled, and must call us to do this, which is clearly displayed on our website. Customers have up to a year after their flight was due to operate to get in touch with us for a cash refund – and we have processed over 2.1 million cash refunds to date."
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