Consumer association Which? has urged the government to enhance CAA powers to take action against airlines failing to pay refunds for flights cancelled due to Covid.

Which? today identified Ryanair, Virgin Atlantic and Tui as “failing to refund passengers in agreed time frames [and] breaching recent commitments to the regulator [the CAA] that they would speed up” refunds.

It called on the government to enhance the CAA’s powers to allow it to take “more swift and meaningful action”.

Yet Which? has so far failed to initiate any legal action against the airlines itself despite having similar enforcement powers to the CAA under the Enterprise Act.

Which? said it has seen evidence that the airlines “are reneging on promises made to the CAA”.

The CAA reported on a review of airlines’ handling of refunds for cancellations due to Covid on July 30, highlighting failings by Virgin Atlantic, Ryanair, Tui and 24 other carriers.

The regulator made clear: “We have required airlines to provide commitments to clear the backlog and reduce the waiting time for processing refunds.”

However, Which? said it found that Ryanair, Tui and Virgin Atlantic “are falling short of the promises they made to the regulator”.

It noted Ryanair published a commitment on its website that all refund requests up to the end of May would be cleared by July 31.

But Which? reported hearing from “Ryanair passengers who are still waiting for refunds from March, and who are still trying to get cash refunds after they were initially sent vouchers despite requesting cash refunds”.

It noted Virgin Atlantic told the CAA its maximum waiting time for refunds was 120 days, but reported: “Some passengers have been trying to get refunds from the airline for longer than four months.”

Which? added: “Tui was reprimanded by the CAA for issuing vouchers and then making customers wait a further 28 days before they could apply for their money back. Tui told the CAA that ‘on average, cash refunds will be processed within 14 days’.”

However, it reported: “Tui still states on its website that customers must wait for a voucher before they can claim a cash refund.

“Which? has heard from a passenger who is yet to even receive the voucher she needs to claim her refund after her flight was cancelled in April.”

It said: “Which? is concerned that if airlines are allowed to openly break the law on refunds through this crisis, it will set a precedent that sees airlines continue to treat passengers unfairly without fear of sanctions.

“It is clear more needs to be done to give the CAA the clout to hold airlines to account.

“Which? is calling for the government to enhance the CAA’s existing powers to allow it to more easily take swift action against airlines that have repeatedly been exposed for disregarding the law and their passengers.”

It added: “This should be the first of a series of reforms to the travel industry.”

Which? Travel editor Rory Boland said: “Time after time, Which? has exposed airlines breaking the law on refunds for cancelled flights due to the pandemic.

“Passengers must be able to rely on a regulator that has effective powers to protect their rights.”

Andrew McConnell, spokesperson for the CAA, said: “We thank Which for their continued engagement on this important matter.

“We will review any supplementary evidence Which wishes to provide to us beyond the 12,000 cases previously submitted during our review of airline refund policies and performance during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“While our initial review has concluded, we have been clear that we will continue to monitor performance closely and should any airline fall short of the commitments they have made to us, we will take further action as required.”

The CAA and Which? have the same powers under Part 8 of the Enterprise Act when it comes to enforcing consumer law, including EU Regulation 261 on air passenger rights.

The aviation regulator has pointed out previously – most recently in testimony to the transport select committee of MPs in June – that enforcement can take a significant amount of time without providing short-term results for consumers.

The CAA noted: “An enforcement action we commenced against an airline in 2018 is not expected to come to court until at least 2021.

“For this reason, the CAA often takes a wider approach, working to get commitments from the bodies we regulate rather than having to commence enforcement action.”