The European Commission failed to safeguard the rights of air passengers during the coronavirus pandemic, a report from the European Court of Auditors (ECA) found.
Many countries, including Belgium, put the airlines' needs ahead of customers' rights by allowing companies to force them to accept vouchers, a practice which is unlawful according to EU law, the report published on Tuesday stated.
"The Belgian government issued a decree (19 March 2020) to suspend the obligation of tour operators to refund cancelled package trips between 20 March and 19 June 2020. Passengers were not allowed to refuse vouchers during that period," the ECA stated.
Normally, passengers have the right to be reimbursed in seven or 14 days, and whilst airlines may propose a voucher instead of offering a cash refund, under EU law, passengers are not obliged to accept a voucher in place of cash reimbursement.
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However, many travellers were left with empty hands when their holidays got cancelled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting travel restrictions.
Especially in the initial period of the crisis, many passengers were not reimbursed or had no other choice than to accept vouchers. Even though airlines started reimbursing passengers from June 2020, they were often waiting for months, sometimes even a year, to receive the refund.
Equally, if the airline they booked a holiday with went bankrupt in the meantime, customers could not get their money back.
"While every effort has been made to support airlines and package-tour operators, far too little has been done to secure the rights of millions of people in the EU," said Annemie Turtelboom, the member of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the report.
The ECA recognised that the scale of the crisis was "exceptional" - almost nine out of ten flights were cancelled at the start of the pandemic - and that "unexpected discontinuation of flights caused sudden and serious liquidity problems for airlines and package-tour operators".
However, it emphasised that many governments rushed to the rescue of these companies, in sharp contrast with the number of refunds being made. Overall, EU member states put aside almost €35 billion of public money for this cause between March 2020 and April 2021.
"Airlines and package-tour operators received billions of euros of state aid, which was provided without being conditional on passengers being reimbursed," the EU auditors stated.
As international travel has restarted and airline bookings are going up, the ECA report made several recommendations to avoid a similar situation as last year taking place.
"The Commission should better protect the rights of air passengers and inform them about their rights," the report stated, adding that government aid to airlines should be better linked to the reimbursement of passengers.
When it comes to coordinating the EU-wide response to a similar crisis, the ECA argued the Commission should be given more power when it comes to unilateral travel restrictions, something which the implementation of the Digital Covid Certificate from Thursday will help with.
In its comment to the report, the Commission recognised that the enforcement of regulation around reimbursements needs clarification, but argued that it is not its role to encourage member states to make a link between aid and the reimbursement of passengers.