Airlines Commit To Timely Refunds After Pandemic Highlights Issue

Schiphol Airport
Credit: Ramon Van Flymen / ANP / AFP / Getty Images

PARIS—The European Commission (EC) has welcomed a commitment by 16 airlines to provide better information and timely reimbursements to passengers in case of flight cancellations.

The move comes after airlines’ flight cancellation practices came under scrutiny during the COVID-19 pandemic, when some passengers were pushed to accept vouchers.  

In December 2020 the EC asked the EU Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) enforcement authorities to look into several carriers’ cancellation practices. 

Dialogues between the EC, national consumer protection authorities and airlines followed, and 16 major airlines committed to better information and timely reimbursement of passengers in the event of canceled flights.  

Aegean Airlines, Air France, Alitalia, Austrian Airlines, British Airways, Brussels Airlines, easyJet, Eurowings, Iberia, KLM, Lufthansa, Norwegian, Ryanair, TAP, Vueling and Wizz Air were involved in the dialogue, the EC said.  

“It is good news for consumers that airlines cooperated during the dialogues and committed to respecting passengers’ rights and improving their communication,” Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders said. “In the early phase of the pandemic, some airlines pushed vouchers on passengers. They were acting against EU consumer protection rules. That was unacceptable. Following our joint action, I am pleased that most of them have now agreed to refund these vouchers.”  

Reynders called on authorities “to ensure that the remaining airlines also offer a money refund for such vouchers.” 

European Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean said the EC is also looking into regulatory options to reinforce passenger protection against future crisis, as part of the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy.  

“I welcome the fact that the bulk of the reimbursement backlog has been cleared and that all airlines concerned have committed to solve remaining issues,” Vălean said. “This is crucial to restoring passengers’ confidence. The recovery of the air transport sector depends on this.”  

The commitments included refunding passengers within seven days as required under EU law; informing them more clearly about their rights in the event of a flight cancellation; and giving equal prominence on their websites, e-mails and other communication to passengers of the different options the passenger has in the event of a flight cancellation by the airline, such as rerouting, refunds and vouchers.  

The carriers also committed to communicating more clearly with passengers, including making the distinction between flights canceled by the airline and flights canceled by the passenger.  

They agreed that passengers should only be given vouchers if they expressly choose them. “Most airlines agreed that unused vouchers that the passengers at the early stages of the pandemic had to accept, can be reimbursed in money if the passenger so wishes,” the EC said.  

They also agreed that passengers who booked through an agency and were struggling to get a refund could turn to the airline directly for a refund.  

The CPC network will monitor whether commitments are correctly implemented, while national authorities will decide how to deal with the outstanding issue of non-refundable vouchers pushed onto consumers in the early stages of the pandemic, the EC said.

Helen Massy-Beresford

Based in Paris, Helen Massy-Beresford covers European and Middle Eastern airlines, the European Commission’s air transport policy and the air cargo industry for Aviation Week & Space Technology and Aviation Daily.