Covid-19 has now pushed a fourth Irish travel agency (Flyaway Travel) into permanent closure, but how are those travel agents still in business – albeit behind closed doors or working from home – coping with client repatriations, those refunds, vouchers and credit notes, and what, if any, new bookings are they getting? Neil Steedman reports.
Yesterday ITTN asked the Department of Foreign Affairs on the latest figures for Irish citizens abroad who are awaiting repatriation, the countries they are in, and what flights are still being organised. The DFA replied: “The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has advised and assisted over 5,000 Irish citizens to return to Ireland in the context of Covid-19 through both commercial flights and repatriation flights.
“Since the middle of April, the Department assisted citizens returning from countries including the USA, New Zealand, Peru, Thailand, Pakistan, Turkey, Cyprus, Nigeria, Zambia, Cameroon and Kenya.
“A Covid-19 call centre, established in response to the crisis, remains in operation from 8am – 8pm Monday to Friday to assist Irish citizens abroad by phone and webchat. Irish citizens at home or abroad with concerns about Covid-19 related measures can contact DFAT at +353 1 613 1733, or on WebChat at dfa.ie/travel/contact/
“The Department continues to provide consular advice and assistance to over 1,000 citizens who have indicated an interest in returning to Ireland from abroad.
“Our consular team is working closely with our 86 Embassies and Consulates to assist these citizens and to notify them of remaining commercial options and repatriation flights, including flights arranged by our EU and other partners.
“Where commercial flights are still an option, we recommend that people who wish to do so make arrangements to return to Ireland as soon as possible.”
All people, including Irish residents, coming into Ireland (apart from those arriving from Northern Ireland) are currently required t0 self-isolate for 14 days and to complete a Public Health Passenger Locator Form. See: https://www2.hse.ie/conditions/coronavirus/coronavirus.html#travel
Several agents that ITTN contacted said that all their clients had now been repatriated and that they had not experienced any undue problems. Others said that some clients still abroad, rather than trying to get on repatriation flights, were content to wait for scheduled flights to resume while staying with family or friends.
One said: “We used Etihad to get long-haul passengers home and found them to be excellent,” while another added: “KLM were excellent in getting people out of Cape Town on the very last flight out at 10 to midnight – a ‘Saigon’ moment as our clients almost had to fight their way to the gates!”
Refunds, Vouchers and Credit Notes
On the issue of refunds, on Thursday 23 April the Commission for Aviation Regulation issued the following Guidance Note:
Regulation EC 261/2004 – Guidance Note on Flight Cancellations: Refunds and Vouchers
“Airlines are offering passengers a mixture of the following options:
- the right to a refund payable after 7 days from the cancellation date or some later date; and
- instead of a refund upon cancellation, a voucher for later use with that airline.
“In accordance with Regulation EC 261/2004, passengers have the right to choose a refund of the ticket price paid when their flight is cancelled. Airlines are entitled to offer vouchers to passengers. Passengers can choose to accept a voucher but are under no obligation to do so.
“The Regulation requires an airline to pay a refund within 7 days when this option is chosen. We acknowledge the unprecedented disruption that Covid-19 has caused to the aviation sector and those working in it, the high volume of calls that airlines are dealing with and the absolute need to safeguard the welfare of staff. We appreciate that this timeline can be challenging in the current environment.
“If you have opted for but do not receive a refund, you can submit a complaint to the airline. If you do not receive a satisfactory response from the airline, or no response within 6 weeks of making your complaint, you can escalate the matter to us on www.flightrights.ie for flights that were meant to depart out of Ireland.
“For more general consumer rights information outside the scope of Regulation EC 261/2004 please refer to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission website at www.ccpc.ie.
“ If the cancelled flight started in another EU country, you need to contact the enforcement body for that country. Click here for contact details of national enforcement bodies.”
This Guidance Note may well be helpful for consumers, as it spells out their legal right to receive a refund from an airline within seven days (although no mention is made of credit notes and their difference from vouchers), but it is debatable whether it was helpful to travel agents, who are caught between a rock and hard place and already had more than enough clients demanding refunds, even though most airlines were not refunding the agents, contrary to the legislation. The Guidance Note, while advising consumers and acknowledging the current problems faced by airlines, does not say a word about travel agents’ problems.
Asked how well, or otherwise, clients understood the differences between refunds, flight changes, vouchers and credit notes, and how many were insisting on refunds, some agents said that the majority were looking for refunds and that several needed the difference between a voucher and a credit note to be explained to them.
One said: “We spent the month of March servicing refunds before we closed – and we explained to clients that refunds could not be given until the airlines authorised their refunds.” Another said: “Clients have generally been calm and understand the differences – in some cases the voucher or change options suit their needs. They accept that we are doing our best regarding refunds and understand that these cannot be activated until airlines etc actually declare that flights are cancelled or a property is closed. This has been a particular problem with our two ‘Irish’ airlines, but our customers are accepting our best efforts when we explain the position.”
A third agent was frustrated trying to get a refund for a group booked with Ryanair who had been promised one by email, only to then get an email offering a voucher. (A not uncommon experience among consumers.) After engaging with Ryanair on live chat, the agent eventually asked for a number that was not for special assistance and that did not have to be routed through a premium number or a UK number, and Ryanair advised that: “Our Dublin-based reservation team number is 0330 100 7838.” Kenny Jacobs, Ryanair’s Chief Marketing Officer, has said that “a backlog of cancellations could see refunds taking up to three months to process”.
Yet another comment was: “We are not happy with Aer Lingus vouchers because they are not refunds and passengers want their money back. The most annoying problem is passengers who booked direct wanting us to administer their cancellations and refunds – the comment of the week from one was: “Are ye travel agents or not?”!
So which airlines and cruise companies have been most helpful to agents in facilitating clients’ options?
One short and sharp reply was “None”, and no-one mentioned Aer Lingus or Ryanair, but one agent said: “A problem we had with Emirates was quickly resolved”, while another replied: “British Airways, KLM, Emirates and Turkish Airlines, as well as Ama Waterways, have been most helpful.”
ITTN’s question as to which airlines, cruise companies and tourist boards had contacted agents with any recovery initiatives to generate new bookings received a wide variety of responses, including “Nil”.
One replied: “Topflight. Other than a few cruise companies offering options for 2021 there are no others.”
The most positive response also included an important message for those involved in tourism in Ireland: “Almost all are sending emails daily. The Spanish Tourism Office have been most excellent and positive recently. Maybe the Irish tourism people could now promote commissions to Irish travel agents when the Covid-19 cloud disperses?”