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Regulator to name and shame airlines over refunds – MSE survey shows Virgin and Ryanair likely to be among them

Regulator to name and shame airlines over refunds – MSE survey shows Virgin and Ryanair likely to be among them

Aviation regulator the Civil Aviation Authority is this week expected to name and shame the airlines that have been the worst for refunds during the coronavirus pandemic. It comes after MSE presented the regulator with a dossier of 77,000 responses to our survey on travel refunds, which earlier this month found that Ryanair and Virgin Atlantic were the worst-rated major airlines. 

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) issued a warning to airlines earlier this month, saying that most hadn't been paying refunds for cancelled flights in acceptable timeframes, and that it would consider enforcement action if some didn't start paying up more promptly.

At the time, it said it would publish an update at the end of July in which it expected to name and shame airlines – and a CAA spokesperson confirmed this week that a report is set to be published "soon".

It's likely the CAA report will reflect the results of MSE's latest travel survey, which ran between 30 June and 6 July 2020 (though of course, the CAA will be using different data and airlines may have made improvements since).

In that survey, Ryanair and Virgin Atlantic were the worst-performing big-name airlines, receiving 'net experience scores' of -89% and -88% respectively. Unsurprisingly, these firms were also among the worst-rated for refunding people at all, with a majority of customers saying they'd been waiting more than two months for a refund since first asking, and just 4% and 1% of customers respectively saying they'd had a refund at that point.

For full help if your travel plans have been disrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic, see our Coronavirus Travel Rights guide.

Martin: 'It's about time the CAA bared its teeth'

Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, said: "It's time to end the refund farce. Airlines have a legal duty to refund within a week, not to obfuscate for months. The level of frustration amongst customers is huge with the worst airlines – not just about the lack of money but the excuses, broken promises, and time wasted calling permanently-engaged phone lines.

"It's about time the CAA bared its teeth – putting meaningful pressure on Virgin, Ryanair and others to shell out and do it faster.

"Of course, I understand the impact of the pandemic on the travel industry sector is devastating. It's why I've long called for 'forbearance' both ways – if people can help by taking vouchers, or rebooking, then they should. But those who need a refund have a legal right to it, and we cannot allow firms to flout the law with impunity, when that cash is crucial to many people's survival."

What did MSE's survey find?

Our survey earlier this month received over 77,000 responses – painting a picture of how travel refunds are being paid.

The aim was to find out how people felt about their 'refund experience', by asking them to rate it as 'great', 'OK' or 'poor', and whether they actually got one. MSE shared the results with the CAA, calling on it to take action to help all those still waiting for refunds for long-since cancelled flights.

Here's how different airlines fared (this table includes all airlines listed in MSE's survey, not just those regulated by the CAA):

MSE's travel refunds survey – airline-by-airline results

Firm No. of responses for net score Net score (1) % who got full refund after firm cancelled (2)
1. Ryanair 8,897 -89 4%
2. Air Transat* 173 -88 0%
3. Virgin Atlantic 2,675 -88 1%
4. KLM 575 -79 4%
5. Lufthansa 310 -78 6%
6. Loganair 183 -73 6%
7. Air France 198 -69 9%
8. Aer Lingus 551 -68 12%
9. Turkish Airlines 113 -60 8%
10. Etihad 112 -54 19%
11. Vueling 196 -52 24%
12. Emirates 743 -48 18%
13. Easyjet 6,407 -39 30%
14. Wizz Air  215 -34 30%
15. Qatar Airways 127 -6 38%
16. American Airlines 137 +9 53%
17. British Airways 3,248 +11 60%
18. Norwegian Air 309 +23 70%
19. Jet2 3,269 +77 87%

Five biggest firms (in terms of no. of responses received about them) listed in bold. MSE allowed users to write in firms that weren't included in the initial list of options, and they were included in the table if more than 100 responses for that particular firm were received – these are marked with an asterisk. (1) Net score calculated by subtracting the percentage of respondents who rated their experience with the firm as 'poor' from the percentage who rated their experience as 'great'. The number who rated their experience as 'OK' is not factored in. (2) Percentage of those who requested a refund after their flight was cancelled for them.

What action has the CAA been taking?

In a report released earlier this month, the CAA said it had contacted 18 airlines and grouped them into three categories according to their performance (though it didn't name the airlines at that point or say how many were in each category). The categories are:

  • Airlines with acceptable performance. Some airlines have been paying out refunds quickly and don't have a large backlog of refund requests – though the CAA says the circumstances are making it "very challenging" for airlines to pay refunds within seven days as they're required to under regulations.

    These airlines will continue to be monitored, but the CAA doesn't expect them to do any further work unless standards slip.

  • Airlines which need to improve transparency. The CAA originally identified a group of airlines which weren't paying out refunds at all, though it said earlier this month that all these airlines were now paying out and some have introduced new systems to process refunds.

    However, the CAA said that these airlines must still do more work to make it clear that passengers are entitled to a refund and provide a straightforward claiming process.

  • Airlines which need to improve their processing times. The CAA said some airlines, including major carriers, had "substantial" backlogs of refund claims which they were taking too long to process.

    Some airlines had already agreed to commitments to speed up processing times for refunds when the CAA's original report was published.

    But the CAA says that if airlines don't honour these commitments and improve their performance, it will take enforcement action.

What are my refund rights when a flight's cancelled?

If your flight's cancelled, then under EU flight delay rules (which still apply this year despite Brexit, and which cover all flights leaving the UK or EU as well as flights to the UK/EU on a UK/EU airline), you're entitled to choose between:

  • EITHER a refund for the flight that was cancelled
  • OR an alternative flight (airlines call this re-routing) to your destination

We've seen some airlines pushing customers towards getting a voucher instead, but you are absolutely entitled to a refund in this situation. The CAA has reiterated that while airlines can offer vouchers and rebookings if the consumer's happy with this, they must give passengers a cash refund if they ask for one.

Our Coronavirus Travel Rights guide has full help with enforcing your refund rights if your flight's cancelled.

What do the airlines say?

A Ryanair spokesperson said: "Ryanair has already processed over €750 million in refunds and vouchers since mid-March, which is over 60% of Ryanair's total backlog of Covid cancellations in March, April, May and June.

"We expect to clear over 90% of the remaining backlog of refund requests by the end of July. However, thousands of customers are being blocked from receiving their refund due to unauthorised third-party screen scrapers providing Ryanair with fake email addresses or virtual credit card details that do not belong to customers.

"We call on the CAA to take action and introduce urgent regulation to ensure that these unauthorised intermediaries provide airlines with accurate customer details, so we can process their refunds."

We've contacted Virgin Atlantic for comment, and will update this story when we hear back. When we originally published the results of our travel survey, a spokesperson told us: "As a direct result of the global travel restrictions, we have had to cancel a vast number of flights and continue to be inundated with enquiries, including refund requests. Our absolute focus remains on supporting all of our customers to amend, rebook or cancel plans.

"We would reassure all customers that if they've requested a refund for a cancelled trip, it will be repaid in full, and the work to process refunds is our priority."