The European Commission, alongside several national consumer protection associations, called on airlines to improve their handling of flight cancellations in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite international travel slowly picking up, and the imminent implementation of the EU's Digital Travel Certificate on 1 July, restrictions continue to be imposed on certain countries to stop the spread of the virus, which could affect people's travel plans.
"We have received many complaints from consumers, but we have also worked closely with airlines to understand the shortcomings and the causes behind this. Airlines must respect consumers' rights when flights are cancelled," said Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders, according to Belga news agency.
He added that airlines must improve their transparency when it comes to communication and proactively giving information to passengers about their rights when flight are cancelled as a result of the pandemic.
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Both the Commission and the organisations emphasised that a choice must be offered to consumers between a refund and a voucher and that airlines must inform passengers that they have the right to exchange their vouchers for cash at any time.
As part of a survey into this problem, it was reported that most airlines failed to refund passengers within the seven-day time limit set by EU law.
As a result, the Commission is urging them to take steps to ensure that this deadline is met for all new bookings - whether purchased directly or through an intermediary organisation - and to clear the backlog of outstanding refunds quickly, by 1 September 2021 at the latest.
Several airlines, including Brussels Airlines and others from the Lufthansa Group, and TUI Airlines, already extended the option for free rebooking until at least 31 July 2021.
Easier travel this summer?
From 1 July, travel within the EU, and to and from red zones will become easier with the European Digital Covid Certificate, which will show that a person has been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, has a recent negative PCR Covid-19 test, or recently recovered after infection, indicating immunity.
This will not only facilitate safer travel within the EU, but it will also help airlines and other transport organisations avoid having to cancel flights as a result of restrictions being imposed by certain countries.
However, even under this system, countries can implement an “emergency brake” mechanism to reintroduce restrictive measures, for example, if new variants of concern appear, or if a country’s epidemic situation faces a rapid deterioration.
Belgium already implemented travel bans on most travellers coming from 24 countries, including the United Kingdom and India, mainly because of the strong circulation of the Delta variant in these countries.
Such a ban could affect travel plans for people from the countries included on the list, which is why communication around airline flight cancellation policies remains important.