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People are suffering serious financial and emotional distress as they struggle to claim refunds for flights and holidays cancelled due to coronavirus, a damning dossier of more than 14,000 refund complaints compiled by Which? reveals.

The complaints – which have been passed onto the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) as part of its review of how airlines have handled cancellations and refunds in recent months – are collectively worth more than £5.6 million and detail the significant toll that delayed and denied refunds are taking on customers’ lives.

The findings come as Which?’s campaign, ‘Refund Us. Reform Travel.’, demands that airlines urgently refund any passengers still owed money for cancelled flights and holidays.

Under the Denied Boarding Regulations, if a UK or EU airline (or an airline flying from an airport in the UK or EU) cancels your flight, you should be refunded within seven days. Package holidays are protected by the Package Travel Regulations, which entitle you to a full refund within 14 days if your holiday is cancelled. However, many of the biggest carriers have been openly breaking the law amid an unprecedented volume of cancellations caused by the pandemic.

Since asking affected passengers to report their airline to the CAA through its online tool on 22 May, the consumer champion has received and submitted over 14,000 reports in just under six weeks, of which over 12,600 have been analysed to establish trends in the data.

Those who reported to Which? that they had been denied a refund are out of pocket by an average of £446.40, and have collectively spent a total of 52,000 hours – almost six years – trying to chase their airline for the money they are due.

Collectively, the 12,602 people whose reports were analysed told Which? they were owed £5.63 million in refunds. These reports provide a snapshot of the scale of the problem, with the industry’s own estimates from April this year suggesting that up to £7 billion of consumers’ money is owed in refunds.

The most reported airline was Ryanair, accounting for four in 10 (44%) of the complaints made to Which?, with passengers reporting a combined total of £1.15 million owed. Half of those (50%) reported spending more than five hours of their time trying to contact the airline for a refund.

Despite being the third largest operator flying out of the UK, behind EasyJet and British Airways, Ryanair owes over £400,000 more than the two market leading airlines, with its £1.15 million total equating to one in every five pounds that was reported to Which?.

Easyjet was the next most complained about airline, accounting for one in seven (14%) complaints. Customers told Which? they were collectively owed more than £663,000 in refunds, with three in 10 (29%) telling Which? they are yet to receive a response from the airline with regards to a refund.

Virgin Atlantic was the third most complained about, with seven per cent of complaints saying the customer was waiting for a refund from the airline. Over £915,000 is collectively owed to Virgin Atlantic customers who complained to Which?, with the average refund amounting to £1,031.61. Three in 10 (29%) customers who reported Virgin Atlantic to Which? told the consumer champion they had spent over five hours trying to claim a refund, while a further three in 10 (31%) had spent over 10 hours.

Tui and Etihad customers spent the most time chasing a refund, with four in 10 (both Tui and Etihad – 39%) spending over 10 hours contacting their airline to ask for their money back.

Additionally, nearly half (45%) of Tui customers who made a report to Which? told the consumer champion they had not received a response from the company at the time of submitting their report.

Airlines have cited huge volumes of refunds and limited staff available to process them as an explanation for the delays in refunding customers, however a number of airlines have done a significantly better job of returning money to their customers in a shorter time frame while operating under similar circumstances.

A Which? survey of airline customers in May who had had flights cancelled found that four in 10 (39%) BA customers surveyed had received their money back within the legal time frame, while three in 10 (29%) Jet2 customers who responded were refunded within the seven day window. This was in comparison to only five per cent of Ryanair customers telling Which? they received a refund within the legal time frame, and one in seven (14%) Easyjet customers.

Which? also invited people to report the impact that being denied a refund on their lives has had, as the pandemic has left hundreds of thousands of households in difficult financial circumstances and worried about their health and that of their loved ones.

Lynn Fox, 42, was made redundant in March after her employer went into administration, before her self-employed husband was left without work due to the pandemic. They had remortgaged their house in January to pay for a once-in-a-lifetime holiday with Virgin Holidays to Florida costing £6,700. But when Virgin cancelled the holiday, Lynn was unable to contact the company and requests for a refund went unanswered.

Both Lynn and her husband have been relying on Universal Credit and told Which? that without the money they were owed, they feared they may struggle to pay their mortgage for the next year. However, after Which? contacted Virgin about her story, she received an email saying her refund is now being processed.

Which? also heard from Laura McAdam, 26, who needed to fly back to her family home after losing her job and worrying about becoming homeless. Laura told Which? she suffers from severe depression and anxiety, and that she eventually stopped chasing Easyjet after spending approximately 12 hours trying to get a refund, as the distress was taking a toll on her on top of everything else going on in her life.

Laura said Easyjet only gave her the option of rebooking or accepting a credit note, and that all her emails to the airline went ignored. She told Which? the £120 – which she is still waiting to be refunded – would make a huge difference to her given how little money she has to live on. However, after being contacted by Which?, Easyjet said it has contacted Laura to apologise for the inconvenience caused and asked for her refund to be processed immediately.

Alisya Boyraz, 22, and her partner were due to relocate from the UK to China for work in February, having quit their jobs and arranged to move out of their home in January. However, after Emirates cancelled their flight in March they had to postpone their move – losing their jobs, the apartment they had secured in China, and a significant amount of their savings in the process. They are now also out of pocket by over £1,080 for their cancelled flight, as the travel agent she booked with, Travel2Be, has not refunded them yet.

Alisya told Which? that their Chinese visas have now expired meaning if they do not make it to China, they will have lost a further £1,300 spent on legal fees for the move. They are now having to rely on friends and family for somewhere to live, and that her partner is still out of work, months on from the flight being cancelled. Alisya said the money owed to them would make a significant difference to their lives while her partner is out of work, and would help cover some of the money lost as a result of their move being postponed.

Which? believes the stories it has already submitted clearly make the case for tough action against airlines that continue to flout the law. But as international travel begins to resume from the UK, Which? is calling on people to continue to submit their complaints to pass on to the CAA to ensure the regulator does not let travel companies return to normal with no consequences for their actions over this period.

The CAA must now take urgent enforcement action against airlines that are failing to pay refunds, rather than continuing to let them get away with illegally withholding customers’ money given the huge financial and emotional toll it is having on thousands of people’s lives.

Which? also believes the serious problems people have faced in recent months have demonstrated that major reforms to the travel industry are necessary. The consumer champion will set out in the coming months steps that the government should take in order to restore consumer trust in the travel sector.

Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said:  “We are hearing from thousands of passengers who are still waiting for refunds months after flights and holidays were cancelled. These people are often in desperate circumstances of their own and have told us the stress of being left out of pocket has significantly impacted on their emotional wellbeing and their finances.

“As a first step to restoring lost trust in the travel industry, it’s important that lawbreaking companies are not let off the hook for their actions during this period. The regulator must act swiftly on this evidence and take strong action against those airlines that have repeatedly been exposed for flouting the rules.”

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