Which? has been accused of “overstating” the amount of outstanding refunds for cancelled holidays following its latest broadside against the sector.

The consumer organisation claimed that “over £1 billion is being illegally withheld” from consumers in refunds “out of more than £8 billion worth of package holidays to have been cancelled”.

Which? Travel editor Rory Boland demanded the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) “take firm action” against companies that “continue to flout the law”.

Yet Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary made clear this week there would be “no cash refunds” unless flights are cancelled, despite the new lockdown.

A senior industry source confirmed the Which? figure of £1 billion in refunds outstanding is “probably not far from the truth” but pointed out: “That includes refund credit notes which are protected. A big chunk of it would be future cruise credits, which are protected.

“These are a genuine choice for customers. They give the customer extra value and help the industry.

“We do have airlines, and some travel companies, being really slow [to refund]. But with packages, the money is protected. Which? is overstating the danger to consumers and painting a picture as though it’s wholly involuntary when it isn’t.”

O’Leary rejected criticism of Ryanair’s behaviour on refunds, insisting: “Ryanair will not pay cash refunds when flights operate. People do not have a cash refund option if the flight is operating. They can rebook.”

He added: “We’ve refunded €1.5 billion. We have no backlog. People who claimed a refund last week have been refunded. The only people left are those who have not applied direct to us, who booked with a screen-scraping OTA. If customers made bookings through screen-scraping sites, they can obtain a refund direct from us.”