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Airlines to be investigated for refusing cash refunds where passengers couldn't travel due to Covid-19 restrictions

Airlines will be investigated by the competition watchdog over whether they broke consumer law by failing to offer cash refunds to passengers who couldn't legally travel due to Government restrictions during the pandemic.

If an airline cancels your flight, you're generally due a cash refund within seven days under EU law. But the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is looking into whether airlines broke consumer law by denying cash refunds when they continued to operate flights when non-essential travel was banned - during November's second lockdown in England, for example. 

The CMA says it's aware that in some cases, passengers weren't offered refunds because their flights weren't cancelled, even though they couldn't have legally used their bookings. Instead, many passengers were offered vouchers or alternative flights - and the CMA says it's concerned this failure to offer customers cash refunds could have breached their consumer rights.

It's now writing to "a number" of airlines asking for more information about their approach to refunds. The watchdog hasn't revealed which airlines it's contacted yet, but says it will use evidence collected to decide whether to launch enforcement action against individual firms - and it would likely name the airlines in question at this point. 

For full info on your refund rights if your trip's disrupted by the pandemic, see our Coronavirus Travel Rights guide.

What are my rights if I can't take my flight due to coronavirus laws?

As outlined above, if your flight is cancelled due to lockdown restrictions - as many were during the pandemic - you're generally due a full refund within seven days under EU flight delay rule. These rules still apply this year despite Brexit, and cover all flights leaving the UK or EU as well as flights to the UK/EU on a UK/EU airline, meaning you can choose between a full refund for the cancelled flight or an alternative flight to your destination. 

If it's illegal for you to take your flight due to coronavirus restrictions but it's not cancelled, the CMA says you should still expect a full refund. Its guidance states consumers should get their money back if they're not provided with a service due to lockdown laws, or can't access what they paid for "because, for example, lockdown laws in the UK or abroad have made it illegal to receive or use the goods or service".

It's important to note, however, that CMA guidance isn't a definitive interpretation of the law, and this is a new scenario which hasn't been tested in court – and the CMA has also stressed that it hasn't yet decided whether it believes any individual airlines have broken consumer law. 

Things are murkier still if travel is advised against but not made illegal - for example, if you're travelling from a tier 3 area of England at present, which is advised against but you won't be breaking any laws if you do. Unfortunately, in this situation you may find it more difficult to get your money back if you decide not to travel. The CMA's guidance says if restrictions that prevent a service being used aren't legal restrictions, it's not clear whether a consumer would be entitled to a full refund - though this doesn't mean you're definitely not owed one. 

There's full info on your rights in different scenarios in our Coronavirus Travel Rights guide.

What does the CMA say?

Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, said: "We will be carefully analysing all the evidence to see whether any airlines breached consumers’ legal rights by refusing people cash refunds for flights they could not lawfully take. We recognise the continued pressure that businesses are currently facing, but they have a responsibility to treat consumers fairly and abide by their legal obligations."

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