British Airways has been fined $1.1 million after U.S. regulators concluded that the carrier failed to provide passengers with timely refunds after their flights were cancelled or otherwise impacted by pandemic-era restrictions in early 2020.
In an order explaining the decision, The Department of Transportation said British Airways failed to “maintain adequate functionality of its customer service phone lines” when it was inundated with calls from passengers wanting to get a refund.
The DOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection received around 1,200 complaints from disgruntled customers who accused British Airways of failing to provide them with a timely refund after their flight was either cancelled or severely disrupted.
At the start of the pandemic, British Airways was forced to suddenly shutter two of its five global call centers due to local government pandemic rules, adding extra pressure on its remaining customer service lines, which didn’t return to full capacity until August 2020.
During that time, however, the airline disabled the primary method for customers to obtain a flight refund on its website and didn’t provide an alternative. Instead, the airline directed passengers to call its customer service line, but “many consumers were unable to reach British Airways”, the DOT alleged.
When customers looked on the British Airways website to find out how to request a refund, U.S. regulators claim they were presented with “contradictory and false information” about refund options, leading some consumers to accidentally request a future travel voucher when they actually wanted a cash refund.
When these confused consumers then requested a refund, the airline refused their request, arguing that the future travel voucher was final and irreversible. It wasn’t until November 2020, and after most disrupted passengers had already managed to contact the airline, that British Airways reinstated its online flight refund option.
In response to the DOT investigation, British Airways claimed that it did a good job considering the “astronomical number of flight cancellations” and denies that customers faced excessive wait times.
The airline said it issued 2.8 million refunds in 2020 and paid out more than $763 million in refunds, $40 million of which was for non-refundable tickets. Considering that 70% of impacted passengers managed to obtain a refund, the airline argued that it clearly showed it wasn’t unduly difficult to request a refund.
Nonetheless, British Airways has agreed to enter into a consent order with the DOT with a fine of $1.1 million, although the airline will only be required to pay half, with the remainder acting as credit for non-refundable tickets that British Airways voluntarily refunded.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.