Coronavirus: Airlines must refund cancelled tickets

Coronavirus: Airlines must refund cancelled tickets
Credit: Belga/Brussels Airlines

As the coronavirus crisis has seen many flights and travel plans cancelled - and several airlines are keen to offer vouchers instead of refunds - one question stands out: can you get your money back?

The coronavirus crisis has caused countries to close their airspaces, and airlines have cancelled their flights because people are not allowed to fly or gather on a plane.

In normal circumstances, European law determines that the consumer has a right to choose between a refund within seven days and an alternative flight. "Of course, the legislation was not written with such a pandemic in mind. This is a very exceptional situation for everyone," Simon November, a spokesperson for consumer organisation Test-Achats explained.

Individual flights

Airlines no longer see money coming in from passenger flights, but still continue to have costs, such as aircraft maintenance and for staff members who are not temporarily unemployed,  November told The Brussels Times.

"This is why they offer vouchers that have a certain period of validity, and which of course allow them to keep the money you paid for the ticket for a longer period of time," said November, adding that these vouchers are not provided for by European legislation.

"Offering these vouchers, however, is okay for us, but only on a voluntary basis. The consumer has to accept them. It cannot be made compulsory," he added. "Some companies insist on the vouchers as the only alternative."

Brussels Airlines is one of the many airlines offering vouchers to travellers whose flights have been cancelled. "We offer them to be as flexible as possible. This allows people to use their ticket value until next year. They can also change their destination, and they can get €50 extra travel value as a gift," Kim Daenen, spokesperson for Brussels Airlines, told the Brussels Times.

"People who want a refund, can get a refund, of course. It is true, however, that we are mainly aiming for that voucher," Daenen said. "This is a very difficult situation, also for us," she added.

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At first glance, several organisations do not offer refunds, or they have hidden the option very well on their website. Low-cost airline Ryanair's website, for example, will send customers looking for a refund directly to the voucher page, according to Test-Achats.

Additionally, these vouchers are not insured against insolvency. "This means that if the airline were to go bankrupt before you have used your voucher, your money could be lost," November said, adding that there is no guarantee that consumers would see (part of) their money back.

In the case of Brussels Airlines, travellers can get a refund by calling the call centre, and applying for a refund. If a flight is cancelled, passengers are notified by email, which clearly states that they can ask for a refund instead of a voucher.

In normal circumstances, the airline has to take care of the refund within 7 working days, but that is not manageable at the moment. "This is unseen, we have never had so many passengers whose flight was cancelled. But it may take a few months," said Daenen.

On Wednesday, 12 countries, including Belgium, asked the European Commission to suspend the law that requires airlines to give refunds, as the "obligation to reimburse cancelled tickets in cash, if the passenger so decides, puts airlines in a difficult situation facing serious cash-flow problems," they argued in a joint statement.

They called on the Commission "to propose, as a matter of urgency, a temporary amendment (…) that allows airlines to choose how to refund passengers."

Package holidays

The legislation for package holidays, offered by tour operators such as TUI, for example, is different.

Following a Ministerial Decree that Federal Minister for Economy and Consumers issued in March, tour operators can legally give a voucher instead of a refund, according to Test-Achats. These vouchers, unlike the ones for airlines, are insured against bankruptcy.

"The consumer has one year to use that voucher to book a new trip," said November, adding that the trip itself does not have to take place during that year, just that it has to be booked.

"If this has not happened at the end of that year, the organisation has to pay you back regardless. However, to do that, they have a maximum of 6 months," November said. "This means that if the consumer wants a refund, it can take up to 18 months, in the worst case," he added.

Maïthé Chini

The Brussels Times

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