Customers facing long waits for refunds over cancelled flights in Germany
Flights were brought to a near standstill during the height of the coronavirus crisis. But many people in Germany are still waiting for refunds or vouchers for airlines. What's happening?
From flights being grounded to borders closing and countries refusing entry to people, there's been huge disruption to travellers due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But many passengers are still waiting to be given their money back for flights cancelled months ago, including many readers of The Local.
Consumer protectors and aviation law experts agree that many airlines are deliberately delaying payments.
That's the case even after the state rescue of the largest provider in Germany Lufthansa and a new German law which makes it possible for companies to offer a voucher first.
According to the German Travel Association (Deutsche Reiseverband), tickets due for refund in the Bundesrepublik alone are worth a total of around €4 billion.
Are airlines paying out for cancelled flights?
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, air traffic came to an almost complete standstill in mid-March and thousands of flights were cancelled.
According to EU law, airlines must refund the ticket price of a cancelled flight within seven days. Lufthansa and other airlines had, however, initially relied on offering customers vouchers. This was called out by the EU Commission which says that people are entitled to refunds if they want them.
At the beginning of July, a law was passed in the Bundestag which means vouchers can be offered to consumers first. However, customers do not have to accept them, and can still have the money refunded if they do not use the voucher.
Consumer protectors and politicians say the behaviour by airlines and providers is not good enough.
Marion Jungbluth, mobility expert at the Federation of German Consumer Organisations (Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband or vzbv), said money "must be paid out" now.
The Greens are also demanding tougher action – and fines – by the Federal Aviation Authority (Luftfahrt Bundesamt) against airlines which do not stick to the rules.
Although the authority is prepared to do so in principle, it says it is waiting for complaints and cases to be filed. Green politician Markus Tressel, however, believes the federal government has a duty to find a quick solution so that thousands of customers do not have to take legal action individually.
READ ALSO: 'I'm cautiously optimistic about a visit at Christmas': How the pandemic hit readers' trips to Germany
Air traffic law portals have not waited that long. Lars Watermann of EUflight.de said: "We have already filed more than 1,000 complaints, either as a collection service provider for the customer, or on our own account."
'Breach of law in transport industry'
The Federation of German Consumer Organisations confirmed that there are daily struggles online and on phone hotlines between customers and providers because airlines gave the wrong impression that travellers could only demand vouchers – not refunds.
References to the possibility of a reimbursement are often hidden in small print on websites and can also be formulated in a complicated way, while there are occasional unjustified cancellation fees demanded.
"We are currently observing a systematic breach of law right across the air transport industry," said lawyer Peter Lassek from the Consumer Advice Centre in Hesse.
"A voucher can be obtained within minutes, whereas refunds are supposed to take months. That can't be the case," said Watermann, who has not seen any improvement even after the state rescue of the Lufthansa Group.
"Unfortunately, Lufthansa has not changed its behaviour even after the rescue. Every possible trick is being used to prevent the payouts."
Payments are 'too slow'
As well as passengers, many travel agencies are also pinched because they often have to wait in vain for the airlines' money, but have to cater to their own customers, said the German Travel Association. It means small firms like travel agents are struggling to survive the crisis.
Lufthansa has admitted that due to the coronavirus shutdown, bosses switched off the automatic reimbursement via the booking systems and justified this by saying they needed to examine each case individually.
Since then, however, staff capacities have been constantly increased in order to be able to process all refund applications.
The group has announced that it will get rid of the bottleneck on refund requests by mid-August. At the end of June, however, around one billion euros in refunds were still outstanding – about half of the total.
Competitor Ryanair wants to get 90 percent of the cases off the table by the end of July. But that's too slow, Watermann said, and named his favourite airline: "Easyjet are the only ones who've been doing it well".
The Hessian Consumer Advice Centre advised affected consumers to request a refund in writing with a two-week deadline."If the airline does not react, you have the option of taking legal action to demand payment or file a suit.
The Local is looking into your rights regarding air travel and disrupted trips due to the coronavirus pandemic. Got a question? Email us: [email protected]
Consumer Advice Centre (die) Verbraucherzentrale
Flight refunds - (die) Flugticket-Erstattungen
Voucher - (der) Gutschein
Flight cancellation - (der) Flugausfall
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