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EasyJet planeImage copyright
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Frustrated customers are demanding that airlines make it easier to claim a refund for flights cancelled owing to the coronavirus outbreak.

But the airlines’ trade body wants the right to give vouchers, not refunds.

Hundreds of flights have been cancelled as fleets are grounded and the process of reimbursing people is under strain.

EasyJet has faced particular anger as rebooking is done online but refunds require calling customer services and getting through is almost impossible.

Holly Fitton, writing on Facebook, said: “I have been told to ring you for a refund. I do not want to rebook my flight as it is not possible and fit in with our jobs at this current time.

“I will be getting a refund and the money is needed. I rang 14 times yesterday and was greeted with line busy noise or ‘please ring back’.”

Another, Robin Parker, wrote: “Since my flights have now been cancelled how am I supposed to get a refund? I don’t want ‘new flights for which I would have to pay the difference’.”

EasyJet told the BBC: “Customers on cancelled flights can transfer to an alternative flight free of charge or receive a voucher for the value of their booking online or claim a refund through our contact centre.

“We are experiencing higher than average wait times so we would thank customers for their patience and assure them that these entitlements will be available long after their cancelled flight has flown.”

What are my rights?

  • If your flight is cancelled, you are entitled to a full refund to the original form of payment within seven days, although many airlines will be 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 may, or may not, cover you
  • If you are trying to get home, the airline has a duty to get you back. However, with so many flights cancelled, this has become increasingly difficult. Now, the government has agreed to step in when needed to return those who are stranded
  • If you are stuck in the EU and a UK or EU carrier is not rerouting or helping you, you should be able to come home on any airline you can and bill the original airline for the new ticket. The airline is legally obliged to get you home and they should be rerouting you themselves. If they are failing to do that, they are responsible for the cost of getting you home. But you should not cancel and accept a refund as this ends the airline’s duty of care towards you and you won’t be able to claim anything back. It is best to pay by credit card, for the back-up to claim from your card provider

‘Change the rules’

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, which represents the industry, said the financial situation was “very grave” for the sector.

He called on the government to do more to protect airlines so they could continue to operate in the future.

“At the very top of the list is allowing airlines to issue vouchers instead of refunds in the event of cancellations, like other EU countries are doing, which would hugely help with liquidity and support airlines through the coming months,” he said.

Travel organisation Abta has called for a four month deadline to pay refunds for package holidays.

However, consumer group Which? said that, even in unprecedented times, the rights of customers should not be treated as an “afterthought”.

“It is essential that businesses do right by their customers – particularly more vulnerable ones who may urgently need their money back,” said Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel.

EasyJet is not alone in facing criticism.

Similarly, customers have reported long waits on the live chat system when pursuing refunds from Ryanair.

BA has faced accusations of “hiding” the refund option for frequent flyers. Many airlines are encouraging people to take vouchers, instead of refunds.

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Pam and Bill Storey

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Pam and Bill Storey, who have been left out of pocket

Some people have found themselves stuck in a grey area for refund rights.

Pam and Bill Storey, from Lancashire, flew home from Fuerteventura and have been self-isolating. She is in her 70s and he has hypertension.

Their Jet2 flight home was cancelled. They said they were then asked to rebook on another flight. The couple went online but found the only available flight to be €1,800 (£1,592). They booked it expecting Jet2 to reimburse them for it but are now left feeling out of pocket.

“We are left feeling very stressed. They didn’t offer any help with the booking,” said Mr Storey, who added that they felt as though they had been “abandoned”.

“In the first email they said they would reimburse us. In the second email they said nothing. Just sort your own flights out.”

He said their flight was full of people in similar situations, although some were transferred to another flight for no extra cost. He and his wife got back to Leeds Bradford airport, but others had to fly to destinations across the UK.

While in Fuerteventura they were able to go to the supermarket, pharmacy, and doctors, but nowhere else. The taxis stopped running but people pulled together and hotel staff helped get their bags to the airport, while also helping elderly and disabled guests.

Jet2 has not responded to the BBC’s request for a response to their case.