MIAMI – Virgin Atlantic (VS) is facing enforcement action by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) over its delays in paying refunds for canceled flights during the pandemic.

So far, the CAA has reviewed the refund delays of 18 major airlines. Regarding VS, the authority has demanded the airline reduce waiting times. It also warned using its legal power to ensure consumer law was upheld.

According to the CAA, VS has been making consumers wait up to 120 days for a refund. This delay is not satisfactory for the UK aviation authority.

Virgin Atlantic committed to reducing the delay to 80 days in August, 60 days in September, and 30 days by the end of October.

According to Simon Read from the BBC, the CAA will monitor VS’s performance particularly closely and will consider the use of formal enforcement powers if necessary.

UK Civil Aviation Authority Headquarters in London. Photo: Wiki Commons

Comments from the UK CAA

Richard Moriarty, chief executive of the UK CAA, said, “Although we have taken into account the serious operational challenges many airlines have faced, we have been clear that customers cannot be let down, and that airlines must pay refunds as soon as possible.”

If any airline falls short of the commitments they have made, the CAA “will not hesitate to take any further action.”

This means it will use “formal enforcement powers if necessary” to ensure passenger rights are upheld.

The aviation authority recognizes the particular challenges that airlines faced initially. Namely the availability of staff, staff illness, and a fundamental change in working practices.

These challenges came about due to lockdown and social distancing requirements. Therefore, the CAA understands that this contributed to a significant backlog of refunds to process.

However, the CAA expects airlines “to adapt to the new circumstances.”

Simply put, airlines must implement new processes to ensure consumers received their refunds.

The CAA Airline Practice Review

The CAA launched its review of airline practices back in May. It focused on 18 airlines, including UK’s British Airways, Eastern, easyJet, Jet2, Loganair, TUI, and Virgin Atlantic.

It also reviewed Aer Lingus and Ryanair due to the size of their operations from the UK. One reason was the important connectivity Aer Lingus provides between the UK and Northern Ireland.

In addition, the CAA reviewed a number of non-EU airlines, also with large operations from the UK. These include Air Canada, Air Transat, American Airlines, Emirates, Etihad, Malaysia Airlines, Turkish Airlines, United Airlines, and Westjet.

However, it did not include other EU airlines due to the different positions taken by National Enforcement Bodies (NEB).

Some EU governments called on the European Commission to suspend the rules requiring airlines to provide a cash refund. They asked to allow automatic provision vouchers instead.

Results from the Review

The most significant problem found was the issue of airlines not paying refunds quickly enough. Passengers had to face long waits to obtain a payback. They also had no certainty of how long it would take to get their money back.

As a result of its monitoring, the CAA identified the following main issues:

  • Some airlines were not providing cash refunds and were only offering the option to rebook or to accept a voucher.
  • Some carriers were not being clear to passengers on what their rights were.
  • A few airlines were making it unduly difficult for passengers to contact them or to notify them of their request for a refund.

Processing Refunds amid The Crisis

Due to the worst crisis the industry has faced, airlines have made major cuts and held back billions of pounds in refunds.

This week, Consumentenbond, a Dutch consumer association, announced it was considering taking legal action against low-cost airline Transavia (HV). The airline is refusing to refund passengers for canceled flights due to coronavirus.

Regardless of the crisis, the CAA states that airlines are “supposed to return travelers’ money within seven days of canceling flights.”

So far, the CAA continues to require commitments from airlines as they continue with the task of processing customer refunds.

The CAA said some airlines that did not give refunds at all, including Etihad, Turkish, and Malaysia Airlines, have now started paying. So far, Jet2, American Airlines, and United Airlines have the best record on returning money, according to the report.