More than two million people have not received money back for flights they were unable to board during the coronavirus pandemic, Which? estimates.
Around 2.3 million people across the UK have been left out of pocket for flights that were not cancelled, despite the circumstances often meaning they reasonably, or in some cases, legally, could not travel to their destination, the consumer group calculated.
Its estimates were based on a survey of more than 2,000 people across the UK in February.
People were asked if they had booked a flight that had gone ahead since March 2020 but that they could not take, and whether they had received a refund.
Since UK lockdowns started last March, millions of people have had flight bookings they were unable to use for reasons that were out of their control, although the airline did not cancel the flight.
All airlines should allow passengers the option to cancel for a full refund, as well as fee-free rebooking options, while these restrictions remain in placeRory Boland, Which? Travel
This has meant customers were not legally entitled to a refund or guaranteed a successful claim through their travel insurance or bank, Which? said.
Many passengers have been prevented from travelling because of local or national lockdowns, restrictions preventing entry at their destination, or the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) advising against non-essential travel.
Which? said passengers in these circumstances would often have only been given the choice of rebooking their flight or losing their money.
Rebooking may have meant paying a significant difference in fare if the new flights were more expensive, and trying to choose new dates without knowing when international travel is likely to resume again.
The consumer group also pointed out that travelling against FCDO advice often invalidates travel insurance policies.
Of those who told Which? they did not get their money back, half (49%) claimed they could not travel because of national or regional lockdown restrictions instructing them to stay at home.
In one case highlighted by Which?, at the start of 2020, Rebekah Evans, from Barry in South Wales, booked flights from Bristol to Turkey with easyJet via an online travel agent, costing more than £2,000.
A local lockdown was imposed two weeks before the holiday, which was set to be reviewed the day before they were due to fly.
Ms Evans did not rebook the flights or accept a voucher in the hope of being able to fly if the local lockdown was lifted.
But people were then instructed not to leave Wales unless for emergencies, Which? said.
At the time of the flight, England was not in a lockdown, so it went ahead.
Ms Evans initially missed out on the opportunity to claim a voucher for the cost of her flight, but, since Which? intervened, easyJet has agreed to offer her a voucher as a gesture of goodwill.
We do require customers to contact us ahead of the flight departing to select an alternative optionEasyJet
EasyJet told Which?: “We do require customers to contact us ahead of the flight departing to select an alternative option. Unfortunately Miss Evans only contacted us after the flight had operated. As a gesture of goodwill, on this occasion, we will be in touch to offer a voucher for the value of her flights.”
Ryanair told Which? that passengers who book non-refundable flights are not entitled to refunds if they choose not to travel on flights which have operated.
Which? first raised the issue of people being unable to get their money back for flights they could not take because of lockdown with both the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in March 2020.
While not all passengers who told Which? they had not received their money back were legally prohibited from flying, the consumer champion has shared its findings with the CMA to aid its investigation into whether airlines have breached consumers’ legal rights by failing to offer cash refunds for flights they could not lawfully take because of lockdown restrictions.
Which? is advising anyone considering booking flights for this summer to wait until the situation around international travel becomes clearer.
It suggested booking a package holiday rather than a flight-only booking for stronger passenger protections, and only booking with a trusted provider with a generous and flexible booking policy.
Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said: “With non-essential travel currently illegal, airlines must play their part in protecting public health by ensuring no-one is left out of pocket for abiding by the law and not travelling.
“All airlines should allow passengers the option to cancel for a full refund, as well as fee-free rebooking options, while these restrictions remain in place.”