The European Commission is still hoping to salvage Europe's summer tourist season with a plan to gradually open borders and lift travel restrictions for holidaymakers.
As it unveiled its recommendations last Wednesday, it called on companies to uphold travellers’ rights to receive refunds for cancelled trips and suggested ways to make vouchers “a more attractive option for consumers.”
Rodriguez Galindo, an official in the Commission’s directorate for justice and consumers, was addressing a meeting of Parliament’s Petitions Committee on problems facing passengers due to flight cancellations caused by the health crisis.
The Committee considered a petition from a Spanish citizen on the “management of cancelled flights and trips” by airline carriers and travel agencies during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Rodriguez Galindo said, “Yes, this is quite a common problem. Passengers are being offered vouchers but these have a limited validity which makes it difficult for passengers to use.”
“I would remind passengers that they have the legal right to a full refund and within 14 days of any cancellation.”
She added, “In cases where a voucher is offered this has to remain the choice of the passenger who also has the right to a refund.”
“I understand a lot of people have faced a very difficult situation on this. Yes, airline companies have problems with liquidity but so do customers.”
Last week the Commission adopted a recommendation on the issue which seeks to clarify passenger rights.
Rodriguez Galindo said this made clear that where vouchers are offered, the passenger should also be covered by the risk of insolvency for a period of up to 12 months.
She said, “Passengers are afraid an airline may go bankrupt and wonder what they can then do with voucher if that happens.”
"This is quite a common problem. Passengers are being offered vouchers but these have a limited validity which makes it difficult for passengers to use" Blanca Rodriguez Galindo, European Commission
“The Commission is also saying that a voucher can be used by another passenger if someone cannot use it.”
She said some air carriers were also “giving misleading information”, for example, by stating that a flight is still operating when it is not.
“The Commission does not have competence to deal with individual cases as this is the competence of each Member State, but we are aware of the problems passengers and travellers are having. We are also aware of the problems the industry is having and we are currently monitoring the situation carefully.”
“We have issued a letter to each Member State to explain the recommendation adopted last week and we are asking them to put these recommendations into place.”
French EPP member Agnès Evren told the meeting, mostly held online, that “millions of passengers” had been affected by the crisis.
“They find they cannot travel and the replacement is a voucher rather than a refund with an expiry which is often too short.”
“But airlines are also suffering from this crisis with the majority still grounded.t That is why I’d encourage travellers to choose a voucher if possible while also being aware that they have a right to a refund.”
"Airlines are also suffering from this crisis with the majority still grounded. That is why I’d encourage travellers to choose a voucher if possible while also being aware that they have a right to a refund" Agnès Evren MEP
Spanish Socialist member Cristina Maestre, also appearing via video link, told the Committee the “significant” economic consequences of the lockdown had badly affected airlines which “are going through a very difficult situation.”
She added, “But, as the Commission says, the travelling public also have similar problems and, very often, they cannot use these vouchers issued by airlines.”
“That is why it is very important these issues are followed up by European consumer protection networks.”
Frédérique Ries, a Belgian RE member, agreed, saying, “I and other MEPs had had hundreds and hundreds of messages from passengers facing a similar situation to today’s petitioner.”
“The Commission has again today clearly said what the law states on this: airlines must offer a refund or a voucher.”
“Yes, airlines have seen flights grounded and have themselves huge problems, but it is not for consumers to pay the price for this.”
"Yes, airlines have seen flights grounded and have themselves huge problems but it is not for consumers to pay the price for this" Frédérique Ries MEP
Ries added, “Another way of dealing with this would be for any voucher to have greater flexibility so that is it not so restrictive with a deadline. Airlines need to think about this option because some airlines are offering vouchers with only 15 percent of their original value.”
Polish ECR deputy Ryszard Czarnecki told the meeting the petition was “very important because passengers have rights.”
He added, “But the airlines are facing a hugely difficult situation. The largest will get through this, but smaller and medium-sized ones will face significant problems.”
“We may see some go bankrupt so we need to reconcile the interests of passengers and satisfy their rights but we also need to take into account the need to keep airlines alive.”
He said, “The devil is always in the detail and if someone needs to choose between a refund or a voucher they will choose a refund.”
“We have to recall that half of the Member States have recently decided to defend airlines’ interest in a strident manner by insisting that airlines need only provide vouchers.”