Meanwhile, Tourism & Transport Minister Shane Ross is considering credit notes "as an option" to protect both consumer rights and business in Covid-19 chaos
Passengers whose flights have been cancelled due to Covid-19 can choose to accept a voucher, but are under no obligation to do so, the Commission for Aviation Regulation (CAR) has confirmed.
"Airlines are entitled to offer vouchers to passengers," Ireland's aviation regulator clarified in a guidance note issued today.
Passengers can choose to accept these, but do not have to, it added.
Under EU Regulation 261/2014, passengers whose flights are cancelled must be offered the choice of a refund, to be issued within seven days of the cancellation, or a rebooking.
CAR is the national enforcement body monitoring and regulating EU air passenger rights legislation in Ireland.
Its guidance comes as customers and travel agents have expressed frustration over what they claim are difficulties contacting airlines for refunds.
Faced with a passenger furore, Ryanair yesterday said it continues to give customers “all of the options set out under EU regulations, including free moves and refunds in the form of cash or vouchers."
However, passengers awaiting refunds have continued to complain about voucher offers, long queues to speak with chatbots and call centres, and waits of several weeks to get their money back.
"The process time for cash refunds is taking longer due to the fact that we are having to process 10,000 times the usual volume and have fewer staff available due to social distancing measures," Ryanair says.
Customers who insist on a refund are being placed in a "cash refund queue until the Covid-19 emergency has passed," the airline states.
In its guidance, CAR recognises that airlines are struggling.
"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," it says.
In the circumstances, a seven-day refund timeline "can be challenging", it adds.
Meanwhile, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross, has been co-ordinating with Europe on potential measures to deal with the situation, taking the needs of airlines, travel agents and consumers into account.
It remains the case that, under EU Regulation 261, airlines "are required to refund their customers in circumstances where flights have been cancelled", a spokesperson for his Department confirmed.
"However, there is no doubt that the sheer scale and breadth of the impact of Covid-19 is having a very serious impact on the financial position of all companies in the travel sector, from large airlines right through to small, local travel agents," she added.
"The challenge is how to protect these businesses, protect the jobs and at the same time stand over consumer protections."
The spokesperson confirmed that credit notes are one option being examined - as they have been in several EU member states, including Germany and France.
If complaints to airlines do not work, passengers can contact CAR itself.
"If you do not receive a satisfactory response from the airline, or no response within six weeks of making your complaint, you can escalate the matter to us on flightrights.ie for flights that were meant to depart out of Ireland," it says.
Some passengers have also reported success claiming back purchases on credit cards.
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