Tips for obtaining a refund when an airline cancels your flight

Nov 4, 2020

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information.

Thousands of flights around the world have already — and will continue to be — cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Airlines are slashing schedules and temporarily ceasing operations to certain destinations — or even ceasing operations altogether.

As England prepares to enter its second national lockdown as of 5 November, the industry expects to slash services even further.

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“Following the government’s sudden announcement today, EasyJet will operate its planned schedule until Thursday and will be reviewing its flying programme over the lockdown period,” EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren said in a statement, according to The Independent. “It is likely that much of the UK touching schedule will be cancelled during lockdown with our planned flying set to resume in early December.”

Related: Is my airline allowing changes or issuing refunds ahead of England’s second lockdown?

So what happens if an airline does cancel your flight — what are your rights? Here are some tips so you know where you stand if an airline has cancelled your flight and to help you get where you want to go.

Related: Before England enters its second lockdown, what are your options if you’re abroad right now?

If you choose to change your travel plans and cancel a flight you have booked before the airline cancelled the flight (i.e. it is still operating), you will not be entitled to a refund unless the terms and conditions of your ticket allow this. A fully flexible, refundable ticket would allow this, a discount sale fare probably would not. This is known as a voluntary change and does not rule you eligible for a refund from the airline.

Related: Is my airline allowing changes or issuing refunds ahead of England’s second lockdown?

However, when an airline cancels your flight (before you have touched the booking yourself), you are legally entitled to a refund — this is known as an involuntary change. The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority clearly states: “If your flight has been cancelled, your airline must offer you the choice of a refund or alternative flight.” The airline may encourage you to take a flight at an alternate time, or possibly to a nearby destination rather than the destination you originally booked. Ultimately, it is up to you whether you choose this option or insist on a refund.

Related: Can I claim EU261 compensation if my flight was delayed or cancelled because of coronavirus?

The issue many travellers have faced over the past few months is that as airlines cancel hundreds, if not thousands, of flights, they are doing everything they can to hold on to customers’ cash. As a result, airlines have been offering travel credit or vouchers to passengers for cancelled flights rather than full refunds. When you’ve chosen to cancel your flight yourself and the terms and conditions of your ticket do not allow a cash refund, the airline is allowed to offer you just a travel credit, rather than a refund.

Remember, if the airline cancels your flight itself and you are not satisfied with the options it offers (such as a date change or voucher), you are entitled to a cash refund.

British Airways planes parked on the tarmac at Glasgow Airport after Prime Minister Boris Johnson has put the UK in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images)
(Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images)

So if you are entitled to a refund, here are some tips to get it.

Check your booking online

If the airline has cancelled your flight, your booking should show this and, depending on the airline, there may be the option of selecting a refund online.

If an airline is only offering a voucher but you are entitled to a refund, do not select the voucher. It will be significantly more difficult, if not impossible, to switch this from a voucher to a refund at a later date.

Contact the airline

Where there is no option to choose a refund online, research the options to contact the airline without phoning them. For example, Virgin Atlantic has a very efficient and easy-to-use WhatsApp option (0344 874 7747), which allowed me to cancel a booking without the need to call the phone centre.

See if there’s an in-app chat function. Try reaching out to the airline on social media to explain your flight was cancelled and you want to know how to obtain a refund without calling. While it’s generally quicker to contact an airline on social media, the sophistication and responsiveness of the social media team will differ greatly from airline to airline.

If other contact methods fail, your best bet is to call the airline and speak to a real person. Expect very long wait times if doing so, as thousands of other passengers are trying to change their travel plans. Note that you have up to 12 months after the date of the cancellation to obtain a refund, so consider when it is most efficient to contact the airline given the long wait times.

Be clear about the nature of your request

When you contact the airline, be very clear that the airline cancelled your flight, and not that you want to cancel the booking. If the airline does not understand your situation, they may give you the wrong advice, send you to the wrong person and you may not receive your refund.

If you do speak to a real person and they still recommend you accept a voucher, stand your ground and insist you are legally entitled to a refund. Ask to speak with a manager if the airline does not agree and point out their legal obligation as per the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority.

Consider calling your credit card issuer

Assuming you paid by credit card and the purchase was more than £100, you could also consider applying for a refund with the credit card issuer for not receiving the goods and services you paid for under your Consumer Credit Act s75 rights. If you paid for the flights with a debit card you can contact your bank about the option for a chargeback. You must claim a chargeback within 120 days of the purchase to be eligible, while there is no time limit for s75 refunds.

Note for either of these options it may actually take longer to obtain a refund this way than through the airline directly.

Contact the CAA

In the event that the airline still does not agree to issue you a refund and you have exhausted the steps above, you can contact the Civil Aviation Authority to lodge a formal complaint. Note that the agency will likely be overwhelmed with complaints and may not be able to assist you in a timely manner.

Bottom line

This is a frustrating and unfortunate situation for both passengers and airlines. Passengers understandably want to receive the money back for travel that is no longer occurring, as people tighten their belts amid unprecedented job losses and a grim economic outlook.

Airlines are also desperately trying to stay afloat, and hordes of passengers abruptly pulling vast amounts of money out of its cashflow could mean the airline may not survive. At the end of the day, if you know what you’re entitled to, you should be able to access the refund to which you are eligible.

Featured photo by Mimadeo / Getty Images.

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