Can a European airline force you to accept a voucher instead of a refund for a flight it canceled during the pandemic? The simple answer is no. But that hasn’t stopped many carriers across the globe from trying.
If you’ve been offered a future flight credit from a European airline that owes you a refund, you’re not alone. Since the coronavirus crisis started causing mass flight cancellations last March, requests for refund help have flooded our inbox. Here’s how you can thwart an airline’s efforts to replace your cash refund with a future flight credit.
Alitalia: “We inform you that your flight has been canceled due to the Covid-19 health crisis.”
Early last spring, Michelangelo Latona and his wife were still scheduled to fly to Europe at the end of May. However, an email from Alitalia in mid-April put an end to those plans.
We inform you that flight AZ 00615 on May 27 from BOSTON BOS to ROMA FCO has been canceled due to the Covid-19 health emergency and the consequent travel restrictions decided by national and international authorities. (Email from Alitalia to LaTona)
The message went on to describe all the ways the LaTonas could rebook or receive a voucher. The voucher would only be good for one year from the date of issue.
That didn’t sound good to LaTona. After all, no one knows when the coronavirus pandemic will be over. He didn’t want a voucher. As a frequent traveler, he knew that European airlines are required by the European Commission to provide refunds in the case of a flight cancellation.
Latona continued to read through the message from Alitalia. At the very bottom of the email was a mention of the possibility of a refund.
“So we made our refund request in writing to Alitalia for the canceled flight on April 26,” LaTona recalled. “Alitalia promised a refund for the tickets to Italy, but we’ve seen nothing yet. Now customer service is not responding to our email.”
Latona’s email to the Elliott Advocacy team arrived over three months after the promise of a refund from Alitalia.
A 6-month wait for a refund from a European airline is not reasonable
When LaTona’s request for help landed in the Elliott Advocacy team’s inbox, it was soon after a slew of successfully resolved Alitalia cases.
The first was a troubling missing refund case that ABC News in Boston contacted me about. An elderly couple had asked their news team for help after Alitalia canceled their flight and then ignored their refund request. Ultimately, the couple received a message from Alitalia that they could expect to receive their refund in six months.
After the news report aired, I thought it might be worth a shot to send their information to our helpful contact at Alitalia. Soon came the very good news that the couple would not have to wait any longer for their refund.
Our home office [in Rome] contacted the passengers to confirm their refunds.
Have a great week!
And more missing refunds
Then we had the case of Marian Grogan. She had been waiting since March for a refund after Alitalia canceled her flight to Europe. And the ‘courtesy’ message she received from Alitalia about it didn’t sound promising.
Thank you for your email.
You will receive the refund notice once the refund is processed.
Due to a high number of requests, we kindly ask you to not solicit either via mail or via phone before 30 days from your request.
Thank you for understanding.
This is a courtesy message. Please do not reply to this email. Alitalia Team.
Four months after the 30 days were up, Grogan hadn’t heard anything else from the airline. But the same day that Grogan sent her request to our team, our contact at Alitalia was able to confirm her refund.
And lastly, we had Yvonne Swader, who had been waiting since last fall for reimbursement from the airline for damaged luggage. She also quickly received good news from our contact after she sent her plea for help to the Elliott Advocacy team.
I hoped the positive trend would continue for the LaTonas.
Alitalia: “We’ve processed this refund today!”
The good news for the LaTonas came within 24 hours.
“Hi Michelle, we’ve processed the LaTonas refund today,” our Alitalia contact informed us the next day. And our team soon heard from Latona’s mom.
Let me just say right now, Elliott Advocacy is amazing! In less than 24 hours, Alitalia has issued the refunds!
Of course, we’re delighted to help. But I couldn’t help wondering what might be propelling this burst of refunds. Given Alitalia’s well known precarious financial state and the Italian government’s authorization of vouchers rather than refunds during the coronavirus crisis, cash refunds seemed unlikely.
But then I found what will be excellent news for thousands and thousands of travelers. For passengers who have had a European airline reject their refund request during the pandemic, help is on the way. More on that in a moment.
Airline shenanigans, surprise vouchers and missing refunds during the pandemic
To be clear, European airlines aren’t the only carriers trying to creatively avoid paying refunds for canceled flights. Since the coronavirus crisis really began to impact the travel industry, we’ve been reporting on all sorts of airline shenanigans.
However, the Department of Transportation requires carriers operating into or out of the United States to provide a refund if the airline cancels a flight.
In April, the DOT was quick to issue a statement reinforcing that airlines owe passengers refunds when the carrier cancels the flight. This notice was terrible news for airlines looking for room to wiggle out of the refunds owed to customers. And our team soon saw a drop in requests for help from passengers on U.S.-based airlines.
Unfortunately, at the same time, the cries for assistance from passengers on European airlines began to accelerate.
Many European countries have condoned vouchers instead of refunds for canceled flights
The reason? Many European countries began to issue temporary cancellation regulations to prevent the collapse of the travel industry during the pandemic.
These temporary regulations allow airlines and other providers in the travel industry to offer vouchers instead of refunds — even when the vendor canceled the travelers’ plans.
As a consumer advocacy team, our ability to mediate refunds with European airlines immediately diminished. When a foreign government gives its blessing to companies to deviate from standard procedures, we have no mediation tools. The situation looked dire.
But, at least for the European airline industry, things were about to change.
The European Commission rejects vouchers as an acceptable alternative to cash
On July 2, the European Commission issued a warning to 10 member states that had allowed airlines to issue vouchers instead of refunds during the pandemic. Those countries include Czech Republic, Cyprus, Greece, France, Italy, Croatia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal and Slovakia.
The letter from the European Commission warned each member state that it had two months to correct the problem — or else.
Specifically, Italy was warned that the policy it adopted during the coronavirus violates passengers’ rights. That regulation has allowed airlines, as well as bus, boat and train operators, to issue unwanted vouchers instead of refunds.
This news has come as a relief to European travelers who have seen their refund requests unceremoniously rejected during the pandemic. And the ruling also puts more advocacy tools back into our team’s hands. That’s a win-win situation 🙂
How to get a refund from a European airline that canceled your flight
The European Commission’s announcement that it’s enforcing the EU passenger-rights laws makes it a great time to ask for your refund. Here are some strategies to help you navigate the process.
- Confirm refund eligibility
First and foremost, it’s critical to confirm that you’re actually entitled to a refund. A significant number of passengers who contact our team have not taken this first step. The European Commission only requires an airline to refund your flight if the airline canceled before you did. If the flight operated as scheduled or you canceled the trip too soon, the airline doesn’t owe you a refund. Unfortunately, this is also true even if a coronavirus travel ban prevents your entry to a destination. Remember, if the flight operates and you’re not on it, for whatever reason, the airline isn’t required to provide a refund.
- Make a written refund request to the airline
Ok, so you’ve confirmed that you’re eligible for a refund for a canceled flight. Your next step is to make a formal refund request to the airline. Keep in mind that during this pandemic, all airlines would love for you to accept a voucher in place of cash. You’re going to need to make it clear you’re not willing to accept that outcome. To make this process easy for you, our research team has found executive customer service contact information for almost every airline in the world. (Thanks again, Meera and John!)
- Resubmit rejected refund requests now
If a European airline responded to your refund request during the coronavirus crisis with an automatic voucher — or didn’t answer at all — it’s time to resubmit. You’ll want to cite the recent enforcement statements from the European Commission about your passenger rights.
- Keep a paper trail of your efforts
Although Alitalia is taking the European Commission’s enforcement warning seriously, other airlines may need more forceful nudges. Ensure that you keep a clear paper trail of all of your efforts to get your money back. You will need that documentation if later a ruling by the European Commission or the Department of Transportation forces retroactive refunds for any passenger who asked for one.
- File a complaint with the national enforcement body of the EU
If a European airline violates your passenger rights by canceling your flight and refusing to give you a refund, you can file a complaint with the EU’s national enforcement body. You will submit the claim in the country where the flight was scheduled to operate. Here is Elliott Advocacy’s guidance to filing an airline complaint with the enforcement body of the EU
- File a complaint with the Department of Transportation
The DOT has not made a public statement about the various European and Canadian airlines that have been refusing refunds. But don’t let that deter you from filing a complaint about this practice. The more complaints the DOT receives about a particular issue, the more likely it will take action. So if your canceled flight was scheduled to operate to or from the U.S., you can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation.
- Ask your credit card company about a dispute
The Fair Credit Billing Act allows consumers to file credit card disputes when a merchant doesn’t provide the service as agreed. This should always be your last step, since filing a credit card chargeback too soon can lead to more problems. It’s important to give the airline and the various enforcement agencies a chance to respond to your request before escalating to your credit card company. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)
*October update: On a daily basis, the Elliott Advocacy team continues to receive many requests for help from passengers who’ve been waiting for months for refunds from foreign airlines. The Good news is that by following this guidance, many passengers have received their long-anticipated refunds. And if your struggle is with a non-European airline, you can read about additional refund strategies here.