EU auditors and the European Commission have begun separate probes into airline refunds and compliance with rules on air passenger rights during the Covid-19 crisis.

The European Court of Auditors (ECA) will investigate whether the EC “has been safeguarding the rights of citizens” who booked air travel in the pandemic.

The auditors will examine whether the rules on air passenger rights under EU Regulation 261 are “resilient enough to deal with such a crisis”.

They will check whether the EC monitored compliance with the rules on refunds “and took action accordingly”.

And they will assess whether EU member states took passengers’ rights into account when granting emergency state aid to airlines and travel companies.

Lufthansa, Air France-KLM and Tui are among the major businesses to have received state-backed loans or credit guarantees from EU governments.

Separately, the EC announced it would investigate airlines’ behaviour in paying refunds following complaints by the European Bureau of Consumers’ Unions.

EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said: “We expect airlines to properly inform consumers of their rights when a flight needs to be cancelled and to ensure all passengers who want a refund receive it.”

Annemie Turtelboom, who will lead the ECA audit, said: “The EU and member states have had to strike a balance between preserving air passenger rights and supporting ailing airlines.

“Our audit will check that the rights of millions of air travellers were not collateral damage in the fight to save struggling airlines.”

In a statement, the ECA said: “Many passengers had their flights cancelled by airlines, others no longer wished to travel due to the different national emergency measures taken such as flight bans, closing borders, imposing quarantine requirements or requiring a negative Covid-19 test before flying.

“The Commission issued interpretative guidelines and recommendations on vouchers, but passengers were often pushed by airlines to accept vouchers instead of receiving a cash refund.

“In other cases, airlines did not refund passengers on time or at all.”

The ECA also noted: “EU countries introduced emergency measures to support [airlines] by granting state aid or by allowing more flexibility in the way airlines refund passengers.

“Until December 2020, airlines had obtained or were obtaining up to €37.5 billion in state aid.”

In addition, “12 member states notified the Commission of state aid measures to prop up tour operators and travel agencies to the tune of €2.6 billion”.

Airlines for Europe (A4E), which represents carriers including Ryanair, easyJet and the IAG, Lufthansa and Air France-KLM groups, called for changes to the rules “to include deferred reimbursement of travellers when a crisis systematically disrupts air travel”.

The EU auditors’ report is expected before the summer.