This second national lockdown may well make us all even more cautious about booking travel abroad in the future. But what if you took a voucher instead of a refund in the spring or summer and are now wondering if you’re protected as the uncertainty continues?
During my appearance on BBC Breakfast yesterday, I was hitting home the point of airlines playing fair. Back when the pandemic first hit, Resolver tried to encourage people to take vouchers for cancelled or changed flights where they felt they could. We were acutely aware of how the travel industry has been struggling and how our future options for travel could be limited – or worse – if no goodwill was shown.
And that makes it all the more disappointing that airlines don’t seem to be reciprocating that spirit of goodwill. Indeed over recent weeks and months we’ve seen countless examples of what I’d call sharp practices, that while not illegal, certainly don’t feel fair. Things such as charging fees to change flights, not offering a refund now people are not allowed to travel and sticking to rigid T&Cs for vouchers people really haven’t had a fair chance to use. I’d say now is the time to show consumers that fairness back – and there are ways airlines can be reasonable.
Is the clock ticking on your airline voucher?
If you were not aware before that your voucher has an expiry date, take note – most vouchers will have a time limit on when you can use them. It shocks me to hear that in a number of cases, consumers were not told this, or that their airline certainly wasn’t being upfront about a time limit.
If it was not made clear to you that your voucher will expire after a certain period of time (often, a year from when it was issued, or a specific date), you need to check the small print on the voucher issued to you, and then get in touch with your airline to ask for an extension if you need one – or if you genuinely feel you were misled, a refund. If it refuses then it’s my belief that you can take this further – by complaining using Resolver or contacting an Alternative Dispute Resolution service to state your case.
If you were aware that your voucher had a time limit, but are now concerned that the clock is starting to tick, then I’d say again, contact your airline to get that date extended. Airlines don’t have a legal requirement to do so, but going back to the spirit of fairness, it would be more than reasonable for them to agree to this given the current unpredictability of the situation we are in.
I’ve been really disappointed that where people were offered the option of a voucher or a refund and chose the former, that airlines have not offered the option to cash that voucher in. I’d say if you are genuinely concerned that you won’t be able to use your voucher and instead want your money back, contact the airline and make it clear you intend to pursue a refund. We go back to the point that there is no legal requirement for an airline to do this but if you took this option to show some support – particularly if your flight was cancelled so you were legally entitled to a refund at the time – then make this clear.
I’ve also been hearing of issues when consumers have tried to use their vouchers. This will often relate to things such as vouchers not covering ‘the extras’ such as seat reservations (even if you have enough money on your voucher to cover this), to being charged more for a flight simply because you are using a voucher to pay for it.
This is wrong – and for me really doesn’t do the image of airlines that have been doing this any favours. Yes, they are struggling financially but using what I would call ‘tricks’ to secure a bit more cash out of their customers is not on. Again, check the small print of your voucher terms and conditions, but get in touch with them if you feel you are being unfairly treated.
Stuck between losing your money – or breaking the rules
What I keep coming back to is ‘what if you can’t travel’? It was bad enough that in the summer people were torn between losing their money or losing cover on their travel insurance if they travelled despite government advice, with the yo-yoing decisions about which countries were or were not exempt from quarantine rules. But we are now in a situation where – for the next three weeks at least – we are being told not to travel. At all.
So how is it then that airlines can pick and choose which flights are cancelled – and as a consumer it’s basically a game of chance as to whether you get your money back? When we were all in lockdown in the spring and unable to travel, all flights were grounded, and consumers were entitled to a refund. Now, we’re all back in lockdown and unable to travel, and yet not all flights are grounded and not all consumers are entitled to a refund.
I don’t have much sympathy for the argument that essential business travel is necessary to keep these flights running. That may well be the case but why should consumers – and a randomly selected group of them as well – be penalised for this?
Late in the summer we contacted the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for its take on airlines still running flights when technically people were being advised against travel to their destination (in a lot of cases). It told us at the time that when a flight is not cancelled there is no legal right to a refund and advised that consumers in that situation “contact your airline in the first instance to explain your situation and to see if it is able to offer you any alternative options. Even if a full refund is not available, you may be able to change the date of your flight, or your destination”.
The CAA then is merely talking about what the rules say – not what is right, wrong or fair. It strikes me that the CAA doesn’t have the power to do what it should be able to do and enforce airlines to act in the interest of consumers. This is even more telling now in unavoidable circumstances such as a national lockdown where consumers simply are not allowed to travel.
How is this possible? Particularly when another regulatory body – the Competition and Markets Authority – has stated that in the majority of cases, if a consumer is simply unable to use a service owing to the pandemic, they are entitled to get their money back. Please tell me then how airlines can be considered exempt from this fundamental logic?
We know airlines are struggling, and I’m personally saddened every time I see another story about job losses or closures. But I do feel that where consumers have been reasonable in rebooking or their acceptance of vouchers that airlines now at this time must take responsibility to show the same support and reasonable behaviour to their customers. Refunding flights where travel is banned and extending voucher expiry dates, fairer terms for their use and refunds in genuine situations of uncertainty for consumers, particularly the vulnerable, seem like a small price to pay to ensure continued faith in the industry in future.
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