Coronavirus and Air Passenger Rights


2020 – A record year for canceled flights

2020 will be forever remembered as the year of Coronavirus, or more specifically COVID-19. The epidemic, which originated in China, since has spread all around the world and officially claimed over 400,000 lives between March and May 2020.

To combat the disease, countries all over the world responded by locking down populations and closing borders. Air traffic dropped by over 90% worldwide and this forced airlines to cancel hundreds of thousands of flights, affecting millions of passengers.

This left airlines in the unprecedented position of owing millions of creditor passengers, billions of Euro in prepaid flight tickets. Airlines opted to issue flight vouchers, often automatically, to customers in the hopes of retaining liquidity. In actual fact those passengers still have the right to get their money back in the form of a cash refund, so they should be given a choice. And what is the reality?

Legal protection for air passengers

European air passengers are legally protected against such instances. Various laws such as the European Union Consumer Rights Directive 2011 apply and in these circumstances as well as in individual countries such as the Consumer Rights Act 2015 in the UK. For a few months, airlines battled to avoid making these legally entitled payouts, claiming that this would render them bankrupt.

Instead, schemes offering travel vouchers in lieu of cash refunds proliferated. Wizz Air, for example, offered “120% of the cost of the original booking automatically be credited to Wizz Air customer accounts for use for within the next 24 months for any Wizz Air products and services.” While some travelers are happy with this option, many others have simply no other option, which should not be the case.

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The European Commission backs air passenger’s rights

In the face of this clear injustice and violation of passenger rights, the European Union authorities took a stand. On May 13, 2002, the European Commission stated that Airlines must issue passengers refunds for cancelled flights and that passengers cannot be forced to accept travel vouchers in lieu.

Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC (The European Consumer Organisation) said, “COVID-19 is putting consumers under enormous financial strain. Their right to reimbursement for cancelled travel is more important than ever. However, we’ve seen countless examples of airlines and travel companies undermining consumers’ rights by trying to push people to accept vouchers. Moreover, consumers should not be forced by governments to pick up the bill to bail out the travel industry. We need solutions that protect both the travel industry and consumer rights, without which consumer confidence in the travel industry could be permanently damaged.”

Know your rights – Coronavirus and cancelled flights

To help air passengers understand their rights we have asked the legal team at passenger rights advocate and enforcer company GIVT for their help. Head of Legal Elżbieta Tyszka has answered the most frequently asked questions about the subject. Below are some of the most common queries that passengers have and tips on how and what to do to deal with airlines.

What every passenger needs to know about Coronavirus cancelled flights

Are airlines required to refund tickets?

Yes, airlines must refund all tickets for cancelled flights where a suitable replacement flight cannot be found. Customer Rights legislation dictates that all such refunds should be processed within a period of 7 days. As COVID-19 caused flights to be cancelled indefinitely, all of these flights legally should be fully refundable.

Many airlines tried to avoid making these refunds through various methods. Claims of “force majeure” were voiced, stating that COVID-19 was something above and beyond the control of the airlines and should, therefore, exempt them from the issuing not only extra compensations but also cash refunds. The European Commission has since confirmed that they do not see this as being the case and that airlines already having received billions of Euro in COVID-19 aid had no excuse not to refund these same said taxpayers.

Can I cancel my flight and get a refund?

Many airlines have been working on skeleton timetables, with some flights still operating on the schedule between various locations. Understandably many passengers have been unwilling to take these flights even when their ticket was still valid. Many other passengers no longer had a need for the flight, for example, all the millions due to travel to major events such as the 2020 Olympics in Japan or UEFA Euro 2020 which had been scheduled for 12 different cities in 12 different countries this summer.

Legally if the airline can still provide the same flight(s) as on your ticket, then they may do so and any cancellation would be at the passenger’s expense. Passengers should address themselves to their airline or travel operator to see what options are available. Most airlines will offer free change of flight options and some offer vouchers in lieu of flights.

If passengers do opt for cancellation then they may expect to incur some form of loss of value of their ticket. If in doubt passengers can consult GIVT’s website to find out more information about their flight status.

I already have a travel voucher, can I exchange it for a refund?

Airlines have relied heavily on vouchers as a way of coping with the huge amount of cancelled flights that they have been faced with due to the pandemic. Some passengers, unable to talk to an airline representative, accepted vouchers in lieu of their cancelled flights, but many others were automatically issued with flight vouchers.

Is there anything that can be still done to get a refund? Firstly, passengers should read carefully all the information that came with their voucher. Vouchers are mainly issued by email and/or online via a customer’s airline online account. Check the small print to see what refund options are available.

If this fails passengers should address themselves to their airline’s webpage to see if there is an online option to apply for a refund. If so the airline should comply within 7 days and issue a refund.

If this is not successful then try calling the airline. Remember, some airline representatives are more helpful than others, so it can be worth calling more than once if you are not satisfied with the outcome.

Other options available include contacting the airline via social media. A Facebook message or a Tweet may meet with more success. Alternately, if you paid by credit card you can contact your bank to request a chargeback, see below “Can I get a refund if I paid by credit card?”

If you cancelled your flight and opted for a flight voucher, obtaining a refund will be more difficult. As the original contract is now legally terminated the airline no longer is obliged to issue a refund. However, applying in writing, or via email may still meet with success. Applicants should state clearly that the voucher was accepted as it was not possible to reach a person to talk to.

Can I get a refund if my flight time is changed?

A delayed or premature flight is still deemed to be a bona fide flight and therefore a non-punitive full refund is not to be expected. However, if the change in times falls outside of Regulation (EU) 261/2004 time ranges then compensation may apply. For more information on flight compensation please check the GIVT passenger rights page.

If the flight has been changed to a different date, outside of Regulation (EU) 261/2004 time ranges, then a full refund can be reasonably expected. Passengers should address themselves to their airline webpage to see what options their airline offers. Alternately contacting them by phone, or via their Helpdesk should meet with success.

Can I get a refund if I paid by credit card?

Tickets purchased with a credit card are protected by the card provider, Visa, Mastercard, etc. Please note that this applies only to credit cards and not debit cards, so please verify which payment method was used to purchase tickets.

Credit card companies are legally entitled to act on your behalf to pursue a refund for an unfulfilled transaction. Passengers should lodge a complaint with their bank indicating the cancellation of the flight and the corresponding charge on the card used to pay for the ticket. As the charge forms a contract between the passenger and the airline that has not been fulfilled the bank is then entitled to perform a chargeback procedure on behalf of the client, which should result in a full refund.

How do I get a refund on a non-refundable flight?

Many flights, especially low fare flights, do not include insurance policies. In such cases, however, flights cancelled because of COVID-19 flight restrictions should still be fully refunded. Passengers are advised to address themselves to the airline’s webpage to see which options have been made available by the airline.

If no refund options are available it is best to contact the airline directly and apply for a refund. If the refund is not made within 7 working days then it is advisable to contact a refund request company such as GIVT who can give details and advise on the best ways of recouping your money. If the flight was paid for by credit card then you can contact your bank to apply for a chargeback, see above “Can I get a refund if I paid by credit card?”

What happens if I cancel a non-refundable flight?

If the airline can still provide the flights as on your ticket, then they may do so and any cancellation would be at the buyer’s expense. If, however, the flight turns out to have already been cancelled by the airline then a full refund is due.

Passengers should confirm whether their flight was cancelled by the airline or not. If the flight was cancelled by the airline, either before or after, their own cancellation, then this should supersede their own cancellation and a full refund should be due.

Passengers should address themselves to the airline or travel operator to see what options are available. Most airlines offer free change of flight options and some offer vouchers in lieu of flights. Please remember that if you do opt for cancellation of a flight that was not cancelled by the airline, you may expect to incur some form of loss.

Can I get a refund for a cancelled flight?

As with all cancelled flights, where an alternative flight or rescheduled flight has not been offered by the airline, a full refund of the ticket cost is due. As most Coronaviruses cancelled flights were cancelled indefinitely passengers may reasonably expect a full refund. Passengers should address themselves to the airline or travel operator to see what refund options are available.

Should a refund not be forthcoming then passengers should contact their bank to request a chargeback, see above “Can I get a refund if I paid by credit card?”

If all else fails, don’t worry! GIVT has many experts that will be very happy to help you with your query on how best to recoup your ticket costs.

What can passengers expect in the post-COVID world?

With most airlines in Europe actively selling flights for Summer 2020, the issue of liquidity is now far less of a problem. Airlines may be more well disposed to the issuing of ticket refunds in the hope of putting COVID-19 behind them and concentrating more on future growth as they scramble to return to 2019 levels in the coming years.

We can expect our airport and flying experiences to be different. More automated services and more health security can be expected at airports for the foreseeable future. Passengers will be required to wear masks and be seated further away from each other or be screened off from other passengers. Hand luggage may be restricted to avoid queuing, availability of food and drinks may change and use of toilets on board may also be restricted. So do not forget to consult your airline’s webpage to check the latest updates and requirements before you fly.

For all the latest information on Summer 2020 flights, where and when countries are reopening and who is flying consult our updated blog here.

Bon voyage!

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