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Regulator warns airlines over delays to coronavirus refunds

Only a minority of airlines have been giving customers refunds for cancellations within acceptable timeframes, according to a review from the aviation regulator – and it's warned it'll take enforcement action if some fail to start paying up more promptly.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has been reviewing the refund policies of all UK airlines, as well as some international carriers that operate flights to and from the UK, since May.

And in an update on its review published on Wednesday, it said it's identified a range of problems, such as airlines taking too long to pay out claims and building up substantial backlogs of refund requests. Its review also found that some airlines originally weren't giving customers refunds at all – though it says all airlines it has spoken to are now paying out.

The CAA says that it has asked airlines which are falling short to commit to speeding up their refund processes, and it will continue to monitor performances. If airlines don't improve, the CAA could take enforcement action.

Airlines aren't being named and shamed at this stage of the review if their refund processes aren't up to scratch – but the CAA told MSE it will give another update at the end of July, which should include airline names. 

We're currently updating our research on the best and worst travel firms for refunds – so fill in our travel cancellation experiences survey to let us know how you've got on.

There's full info on your rights if your travel plans have been disrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic in our Coronavirus Travel Rights guide.

What did the review find?

The CAA says it's contacted 18 airlines, and grouped them into three categories according to how well they're performing – though it hasn't named the airlines or said how many are 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 says it can now confirm all these airlines are paying out and some have introduced new systems to process refunds.

    However, the CAA says 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 says some airlines, including major carriers, have "substantial" backlogs of refund claims which they are taking too long to process.

    Some airlines have now agreed to commitments to speed up processing times for refunds. The CAA says that if airlines don't honour these commitments and improve their performance, it will take enforcement action.

Though the CAA says there are still issues with refund processes and timescales, it added that it's seen some improvement across most airlines since the start of the review.

Its update concluded: "This is the first update the Civil Aviation Authority has provided on its review of airline refund practices. We intend to publish a further, more detailed update later this month.

"Only a minority group of airlines have been consistently providing consumers with refunds in an acceptable timeframe, however we have noted a marked improvement across most airlines since our review commenced. We expect this direction of travel to be maintained."

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 re-bookings 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.

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