British Airways baulks at refunds for travel cancellations due to new coronavirus rules

The refund issue ignited a firestorm when similar curbs were in place in November.
The refund issue ignited a firestorm when similar curbs were in place in November.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - British Airways isn't offering refunds to passengers who cancel year-end trips because of new UK coronavirus rules, even as regulators investigate airlines' refusal to hand cash back to customers caught in lockdown.

The IAG SA unit will grant ticket-holders a voucher or let them switch to a later date, it said in an e-mailed statement.

It said it will refund fares if the airline cancels a flight.

The refund issue ignited a firestorm when similar curbs were in place last month.

Last week, the UK Competition and Markets Authority launched a probe into whether airlines violated consumer rights by failing to offer passengers their money back for flights they couldn't lawfully take.

"Some airlines like EasyJet have mostly been doing the right thing and offering refunds, while others like BA only offer the option of a voucher or a rebooking," said Mr Rory Boland, travel editor at consumer advocacy group Which?.

"The CMA investigation is looking precisely into this, as the wording for Tier 4 restrictions indicates these are legal requirements, not guidance, so you should be due a refund."

EasyJet said on Saturday (Dec 19) that it would offer refunds.

"We understand some customers may now need to change their flights," it said.

On Twitter, some passengers said Ryanair Holdings and Aer Lingus were refusing refunds.

Aer Lingus responded to customers on Twitter, saying it would waive change fees, while not addressing refunds.

The airline, also owned by IAG, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ryanair didn't respond to requests for comment.

New strain

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the new rules on Saturday in a bid to stamp out a fast-spreading mutation of the coronavirus that's behind a a rapid rise in cases in London.

Movement in the capital and much of south-east England will be strictly limited from Sunday, including getting on foreign flights.

"People should carefully consider whether they need to travel abroad and follow the rules in their tier," Mr Johnson said.

"Those in Tier 4 areas will not be permitted to travel abroad apart from limited exceptions, such as for work purposes."

While the restrictions will be similar to the lockdown rules lifted earlier this month, the exceptions haven't been clearly defined.

People who live outside the area may transit through Tier 4, which includes Heathrow and Luton airports, "but you should carefully consider whether you need to do so", according to advice on a government website.

The rise of the new virus strain forced the government into an abrupt policy switch at the height of the Christmas travel season, after Transport Secretary Grant Shapps assured the public last week that so-called travel corridors won't be switched for the next two weeks to give people certainty about booking holidays.

"While it is a really difficult position for the government, the fact is that a number of people have taken decisions to travel based on government advice in recent weeks," Mr Boland said.

"People will understand why this decision had to be made, but be angry that it has been made so late in the day, leaving plans to see family in tatters and another fight for a refund on flights."