Lynn and Martin Fox had remortgaged their home to pay for a holiday of a lifetime with their two children in Florida, only for coronavirus and bad luck to ruin their plans.
The couple finished paying for the holiday in January, but Mrs Fox, 42, then lost her cabin crew job at Flybe when the airline collapsed in March.
Weeks later, as the virus lockdown took hold, work dried up for her husband, a pipe-fitter. Then the holiday, planned for late April, was cancelled.
“We thought the refund would be money in the bank, but then panic started to set in,” said Mrs Fox.
Their refund of £6,700 from Virgin Holidays did not arrive. They had little in income, waited weeks for benefits after making a universal credit application, as well as another wait for a government self-employment support grant to come through.
“If only they [Virgin Holidays] would have been honest with us and communicated with us, we would have been happy. If they put a date on the refund, we could have planned,” she said.
“But the phone cut off calls and emails were ignored.”
Consumer association Which? says this is far from a unique case.
It has built up a dossier of 14,000 complaints from people struggling to obtain refunds for cancelled flights or holidays.
The consumer group said this was just “a snapshot of the problem”, which it claimed was putting people under “serious financial and emotional distress”.
‘Four month deadline’
Virgin Holidays said that Mr and Mrs Fox’s refund was in a queue. A company spokeswoman said that it continued to be “inundated with an unprecedented volume of refund requests” and had increased capacity to deal with these cases.
She said refund payments were being taken in date order and would be processed within “an absolute maximum of 120 days”, from the date the refund was requested.
However, this means that waits for a refund far exceeded the legal deadline of 14 days for package holidays. Refunds for cancelled flights are supposed to come within seven days.
When the Virgin Atlantic airline, part of the same stable, finalised a rescue deal in recent days, its chief executive Shai Weiss said: “Despite the incredible efforts of our teams, through cancelled flights and delayed refunds we have not lived up to the high standards we set ourselves, but we will do everything in our power to earn back their trust.”
Those involved in 12,600 cases, involving a range of companies and analysed by Which?, have collectively spent nearly six years trying to chase their refunds.
The consumer group said these complainants were £5.6m out of pocket, at an average of £446 each.
What are my rights?
- If you have a package holiday cancelled by the provider, then a refund should be provided for the whole holiday within 14 days
- If your flight is cancelled, you are entitled to a full refund to the original form of payment within seven days, although many airlines are struggling to meet that deadline. You can accept, or refuse, vouchers or a rebooking but a voucher will probably be invalid if the airline later goes bust
- If you decide against going on a future flight, which is not yet cancelled, then there is no right to a refund. Different airlines have different rules over what you can do, but many are waiving any charges for changing to a later flight or having a voucher instead. Your travel insurance is unlikely to cover you
Airlines acknowledged there have been delays in refunding customers due to the volume of applications, but insisted they were issuing pay-outs.
Which? has passed the complaints to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which it urged to take “urgent enforcement action”.
Rory Boland, of Which? Travel, said: “These latest figures are a damning indictment of the behaviour of many airlines and holiday companies in recent weeks.
“With customers being told to either wait months for their money back or accept a voucher that may prove worthless if a company fails, it should come as a surprise to no one that trust has plummeted so drastically.
“Any further delay risks permanent damage to trust in the travel industry.”
Review taking place
The CAA told the BBC that it is now reviewing the refund policies and performance of airlines.
“We value the input we have received directly from consumers, as well as those that were sent to us via consumer organisations,” said CAA spokesman Andrew McConnell.
“We acknowledge the importance of this and will publish the findings of our review in due course.”
Last week, the UK’s competition authority wrote a letter to more than 100 holiday companies, telling them to speed up their coronavirus refunds process.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said that some firms had misled customers about their refund rights.
A spokeswoman for Abta, which represents the package holiday sector, said companies were themselves facing delays from airlines in refunding them the flight element of any holiday.
They had also mutually agreed with many customers to postpone, rather than cancel, holidays.