Airlines Balk at Refunds as U.K. Tells Travelers Not to Fly
(Bloomberg) -- British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. aren’t offering refunds to passengers who cancel year-end trips following new U.K. coronavirus rules, even as regulators investigate carriers’ earlier refusal to hand cash back to customers caught in lockdown.
IAG SA-owned BA will grant ticket holders a voucher or let them switch to a later date, it said in an emailed statement. It said it will only refund fares if the airline cancels a flight, a policy echoed by Virgin Atlantic in a Twitter post.
The refund issue ignited a firestorm when similar curbs were in place last month. The U.K. Competition and Markets Authority launched a probe last week into whether airlines violated consumer rights by failing to offer passengers their money back for flights they couldn’t lawfully take.
“Some airlines like EasyJet have mostly been doing the right thing and offering refunds, while others like BA only offer the option of a voucher or a rebooking,” said Rory Boland, travel editor at consumer advocacy group Which?. “The CMA investigation is looking precisely into this, as the wording for Tier 4 restrictions indicates these are legal requirements, not guidance so you should be due a refund.”
The latest travel rules took effect Sunday, less than a day after they were announced, catching many with holiday travel plans off-guard. London Heathrow airport was crowded after airlines largely kept to schedules and many ticket holders opted to fly.
EasyJet Plc said it would offer refunds for those who stayed home. “We understand some customers may now need to change their flights.”
On Twitter, passengers called out Ryanair Holdings Plc and Aer Lingus for refusing refunds.
Aer Lingus will waive change fees up to two hours before departure, the IAG-owned airline said in a statement. Customers may be entitled to vouchers or refunds depending on fare type, it said.
Irish discounter Ryanair didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the tightening on Saturday, in a bid to stamp out a fast-spreading mutation of the coronavirus that’s behind a rapid rise in cases in London. Movement in the capital and much of southeast England has been restricted, including getting on foreign flights.
“People should carefully consider whether they need to travel abroad and follow the rules in their tier,” Johnson said. “Those in Tier 4 areas will not be permitted to travel abroad apart from limited exceptions, such as for work purposes.”
The Dutch government on Sunday banned incoming flights carrying passengers from the U.K., saying samples showed the new virus strain had reached the Netherlands.
Johnson made it clear that the policy is aimed at stemming holiday gatherings that could further spread the disease.
While the flight restrictions will be similar to lockdown rules lifted earlier this month, the exceptions haven’t been clearly defined.
People who live outside the area may transit through Tier 4, which includes Heathrow and Luton airports, “but you should carefully consider whether you need to do so,” according to advice on a government website.
The rise of the new virus strain forced the government into an abrupt policy switch at the height of the Christmas travel season. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had assured the public last week that so-called travel corridors won’t be switched for two weeks to give people certainty about booking holidays.
Some customers took to social media, with one Virgin Atlantic passenger saying he was unable to get through to make changes to a flight scheduled for Sunday.
“While it is a really difficult position for the government, the fact is that a number of people have taken decisions to travel based on government advice in recent weeks,” Boland said. “People will understand why this decision had to be made, but be angry that it has been made so late in the day, leaving plans to see family in tatters and another fight for a refund on flights.”
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