British Airways and Ryanair are being officially investigated over whether they treated customers unfairly during the pandemic by failing to offer them flight refunds.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said it was looking to see if the two airlines had broken consumer law, and indicated it was on the side of consumers on this issue. It has opened enforcement cases into both companies.
So is this all about flights that were cancelled because of the pandemic?
No – this is all about flights that were not cancelled. Huge numbers of flights were cancelled, particularly in the first few months of the coronavirus crisis, and consumer experts have always said the rules in this area are clear: full refunds are due if an airline cancels a flight, to be processed within seven working days. Though that did not stop some airlines trying to offer people vouchers and the like.
Where things get more tricky is if a flight went ahead as scheduled, but a passenger could not legally get on it because a local or national lockdown meant it was unlawful for them to travel for non-essential reasons.
This is what the CMA is looking at. At the height of the lockdowns, several airlines continued running flights in and out of UK airports, meaning these trip were not cancelled.
So what is the CMA saying?
It said during periods of lockdown across the UK, BA and Ryanair refused to give refunds to people who were “lawfully unable to fly,” with BA offering vouchers or rebooking, and Ryanair providing the option to rebook.
The CMA said it was concerned that, by failing to offer people their money back, both airlines may have “left people unfairly out of pocket”.
Andrea Coscelli, the chief executive of the CMA, said: “Customers booked these flights in good faith and were legally unable to take them due to circumstances entirely outside of their control. We believe these people should have been offered their money back.”
What are the rules in this area?
They are not clear-cut, hence the CMA’s involvement. There is an argument that airlines are only obliged to refund customers if they cancel a flight.
But in May 2020, Richard Colbey, a barrister at Lamb Chambers, told the Guardian that the fact it was illegal to go on holiday overseas meant that the contract between the passenger and the airline can be deemed to be “frustrated”. That means neither party is bound by it, and any payments made must be refunded.
It appears that the CMA may share this view.
What happens now?
The regulator said it was seeking to resolve these concerns with the companies, “which may include seeking refunds or other redress for affected customers”.
The CMA does not have the power to levy fines on companies, but it can take firms to court.
Ryanair said it had approached refund requests “on a case-by-case basis” and had paid refunds in “justified cases”. BA said it had issued more than 3m refunds during the pandemic, and criticised government policies and travel regulations.