Which? is calling on the Civil Aviation Authority to take “urgent enforcement action” against airlines failing to pay refunds within seven days after analysing thousands of complaints made since the Covid-19 crisis hit.

The consumer group has compiled a dossier of more than 14,000 refund complaints from customers whose flights have been cancelled as a result of the coronavirus and submitted them via its online tool since May 22.

Looking at 12,600 of the complaints, it estimates the refund claims are worth a combined £5.6 million and that customers have spent a collective 52,000 hours – almost six years – chasing airlines for their money, an average of £446.40.

Airlines say the unprecedented volume of complaints has led to the delays, but Which? insists they are “openly breaking the law” under the Denied Boarding Regulations.

Which? has passed the complaints on to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and has  launched a campaign called Refund Us. Reform Travel.

The CAA said it “values the input” and would publish its finding “in due course”.

Airlines put the delayed payments of refunds down to huge volumes and limited staff available to process them – but Which? noted that “a number of airlines have done a significantly better job of returning money to their customers in a shorter time frame while operating under similar circumstances.”

The most reported airline was Ryanair, accounting for 44% of the complaints made, and a combined total of £1.15 million owed. Half of those reported spending more than five hours of their time trying to contact the airline for a refund.

Ryanair said the Which survey was “baseless” and that it has processed more than €500m in refunds and vouchers since mid-March, which the budget carrier said was more than 40% of its total backlog of Covid cancellations in March, April, May and June.

“The process time for cash refunds is taking longer due to unprecedented volumes and the fact that we have fewer staff available due to social distancing measures,” a spokesperson said.

One in seven complaints (14%), worth a collective £663,000 were made about easyJet, with 29% of them telling Which? they are yet to receive a response about their refund from the airline.

An Easyjet spokesperson said: “As the UK’s largest airline, easyJet carries more passengers than other airlines which means we have also had to make more cancellations during this period.”

The carrier insisted it has made the refund request “easy and straightforward”, explained the process through its online Covid Help Hub and invested in extra resources for its call centre.

“We are processing refunds for customers and aim to do so in less than 28 days,” the spokesperson added. “But in these unprecedented times, the volume of cancellations compounded by local lockdown restrictions leading to reduced staffing levels in our customer contact centres, means that processing of refunds is taking longer than usual.”

Virgin Atlantic was complained about by 7% of Which?’s sample, with refunds worth a total of £915,000 from an average price of £1,031.61. Three in 10 customers claimed they had spent more than five hours trying to claim a refund, while a further 31% said they spent over 10 hours.

A spokesperson said the transatlantic airline was offering “as much flexibility as possible for those whose trips are affected” and offering free changes onto flights as far out as September 30, 2022 – and waving fare differences on rebookings made before November 30. They added that all customers who have requested a cash refund will get one if they’re eligible, with payments made in date order based on how long the customer has been waiting up to a maximum of 120 days from the date refunds are requested.

“Our absolute focus remains on supporting all of our loyal customers, whether that’s to amend, rebook or cancel plans during the Covid-19 crisis,” they said. “We continue to be inundated with an unprecedented volume of refund requests, while working through a backlog, and unfortunately these are taking longer than usual to be processed.”

Virgin Atlantic said its customer and finance teams were working from home with “limited infrastructure” but it had moved additional staff over to the teams handling refunds.

Four in ten customers of both Tui and Etihad spent more than 10 hours contacting their airline to ask for their money back, and 45% of Tui customers who made a report told Which? they had not received a response.

Tui, which has cancelled holidays for nearly 1.5 million customers, said it has apologised to affected customers directly, adding: “The world closed around us, retail stores closed and teams had to work from home; we simply couldn’t keep up with the volume of customers we had to help.”

A spokesperson said the firm “worked day and night to resolve this by building new systems to support retail customers digitally and set up 1,000 retail advisers to work from home so they could manage cancellations remotely”. Since the changes, waiting times have reduced to 15 minutes, it said, adding: “We really appreciate the continued patience and understanding of our customers.”

Which? is calling on people to continue to submit complaints for it to pass on to the CAA “to ensure the regulator does not let travel companies return to normal with no consequences for their actions over this period”.

It said: “The CAA must now take urgent enforcement action against airlines that are failing to pay refunds, rather than continuing to let them get away with illegally withholding customers’ money given the huge financial and emotional toll it is having on thousands of people’s lives.”

Which? also said it will set out, in the coming months, steps it believes the government should take in order to restore consumer trust in the travel sector.

Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said: “We are hearing from thousands of passengers who are still waiting for refunds months after flights and holidays were cancelled. These people are often in desperate circumstances of their own and have told us the stress of being left out of pocket has significantly impacted on their emotional wellbeing and their finances.

“As a first step to restoring lost trust in the travel industry, it’s important that lawbreaking companies are not let off the hook for their actions during this period. The regulator must act swiftly on this evidence and take strong action against those airlines that have repeatedly been exposed for flouting the rules.”

Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Andrew McConnell said: “In response to global travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, we are currently reviewing the refund policies and performance of airlines.

“We value the input we have received directly from consumers, as well as those that were sent to us via consumer organisations.

“We acknowledge the importance of this and will publish the findings of our review in due course.”