Passengers across Europe are not being offered refunds by airlines which have cancelled flights due to Coronavirus. But today the European Commission said that such a refusal violates European Union law.

“The airlines have to offer passengers a choice between a reimbursement or a rerouting,” said a Commission spokesperson. “Passenger rights are protected by law in the European Union.”

EU transport ministers have said that normal compensation rules, which entitle passengers to payments of up to €600 on top of their refund in the event of a cancellation, will not apply during this crisis because of the exceptional circumstances. But the rules entitling passengers to a refund do still apply.

Many airlines are not offering refunds for cancelled flights, instead only offering passengers the option to rebook or to receive a voucher for a future flight.

According to the Commission spokesperson, “airlines have the option to offer vouchers instead of reimbursement, but passengers must agree to these vouchers”. The airlines must provide a refund instead of a voucher if the passenger requests it.

Airlines, which are facing insolvency because of the crisis, are pushing lawmakers to suspend these normal refund rules. Though the law is set at EU level, it is enforced at national level. Passengers with a grievance cannot take their complaint to the EU, they have to take it to their national government. So the airlines are both lobbying at national level for governments not to follow the law, and at the EU level for the law to be suspended. The Netherlands has already suspended application of the refund rule.

Airlines industry associations A4E and ERA have written a joint letter to the Commission saying the refund rules “could have serious financial implications for airlines in the short term”. They want airlines to be able to force customers to take vouchers instead of refunds, to save airlines which are facing liquidity problems.

European consumers’ organisation BEUC is lobbying the Commission not to suspend refund rules. They’ve sent a letter to EU Transport Commissioner Adina-Ioana Vălean saying that suspending passenger rights law is putting consumers unlucky enough to have booked a flight this spring on the hook for bailing out the airlines.

“Consumers must not be obliged to pay twice to support airlines: once as taxpayers financing bailouts and then again by being denied their right under EU law to a refund for cancelled flights,” said BEUC deputy director general Ursula Pachl. “Consumers are facing cash-flow problems in the current COVID-19 crisis just like airlines – their right under EU law to a refund for cancelled flights must not be sacrificed, especially if governments use taxpayers’ money to bailout airlines”

The Commission spokesperson said that the refund rule still applies. “We are of course aware of the unprecedented difficulties that the airlines are facing and problems with liquidity,” he said. “Some member states have made vouchers more attractive to consumers to secure [airlines] against insolvency.”

Passengers who are not being given the option for a refund should call the airline’s customer service and cite EU Passenger Rights Law requiring a refund. The Commission has issued these guidelines for passengers to refer airlines to.

If the airline still refuses, a passenger would have to take the issue to their national enforcement body.


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