Airlines rack up £4.5m in unpaid refunds owed to passengers

airlines A plane lands at Leeds Bradford Airport in high winds as a result of storm Otto. The storm, the first to be named this winter, has been labelled Otto by the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) and is expected to bring disruption to travellers across northern areas of the UK. Picture date: Friday February 17, 2023. (Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images)
Which? is calling for urgent action from government and regulators to make airlines refund passengers. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA via Getty

Airlines have run up millions of pounds in county court judgments (CCJs) after failing to pay passenger expenses and refunds, an investigation by consumer body Which? has revealed.

CCJs collectively worth more than £4.5m have piled up against airlines including EasyJet (EZJ.L), Ryanair (RYA.IR), Tui (TUI.L) and Wizz Air (WIZZ.L), according to official records.

Which? said that Wizz Air accounts for almost half the total amount, despite carrying fewer passengers than some of its rivals.

Wizz Air has 1,601 “outstanding” CCJs worth almost £2.2m, according to Registry Trust, which maintains the official statutory register of judgments, orders and fines for England and Wales on behalf of the Ministry of Justice.

The register also shows that both EasyJet and Ryanair have high numbers of “outstanding” judgments. EasyJet had 884, amounting to £611,436 and Ryanair had 840 worth £549,892. Tui had fewer, at, 313, but they were worth almost £1.3m.

Jet2 (JET2.L) has four “outstanding” judgments amounting to £1,434. Meanwhile, BA (IAG.L) has 82 totalling £96,042.

In one case, a customer's flight to Portugal with their family was cancelled by Wizz Air without explanation three hours before they were due to take off.

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Wizz Air had a legal obligation to reroute him as soon as possible, but instead suggested that he book himself on to a new flight and promised to refund him. He paid for a last-minute BA flight for his family of five that cost £2,500 — and incurred other out of pocket expenses as a result of the change. Although Wizz Air refunded the original flight — after several weeks of chasing — it failed to reimburse his expenses.

The airline didn’t respond to the case he brought through the small claims court. The customer was therefore awarded a judgment by default, but still did not get his money.

In October 2022, he had to instruct court bailiffs. The bailiffs visited Wizz Air at Luton Airport and finally forced the airline to pay him more than £4,500, including costs, in December — seven months after his original flight.

In another case, a Wizz Air passenger was failed by a voluntary dispute resolution scheme for air passengers when he tried to escalate a claim for a cancelled flight. The passenger had a flight booked with Wizz Air in June 2022 but was told that his flight had been cancelled when he arrived at the gate.

He received no further confirmation of the cancellation, or explanation of why it was cancelled from Wizz Air, and was forced to book a night in a hotel and a new flight himself from another airport, costing almost £800.

Wizz Air failed to refund him or pay his expenses, so he escalated his claim to AviationADR, which initially ruled that he should get a refund for the flight, but not his expenses. When he queried this it sent him a second “final determination” that he should get expenses but not a refund.

When he also queried this it sent him a third ‘final determination’ that he was entitled to nothing — as the flight had never officially been cancelled. However, Which? has seen an email from Wizz Air to another passenger, booked on the same flight, saying that it was cancelled and confirming a refund.

AviationADR ultimately closed the case and stopped responding to emails. As a result, The customer said he regrets not going straight to court. Wizz Air has since said it is reinvestigating the case.

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Rocio Concha, Which? director of policy and advocacy, said: “The scale of court judgments piling up against major airlines is a result of a system where the odds are stacked against passengers and airlines feel empowered to routinely ignore their legal obligations to pay out refunds and compensation.

“The CAA must get tough with airlines and make clear that it will consider using all the powers at its disposal — which may include reviewing the licences of the worst offenders if appropriate.

“To avoid a repeat of this mess in future, the government must also prioritise reforms that put passengers first, which means giving the regulator powers and resources to require information from airlines as to their compliance with the law and to directly fine rogue operators that do not comply.”

Easyjet told Which? it now has no known unpaid CCJs and that the register has not been updated to reflect its current position.

Trust Online, the official register of court judgments, told Which? that: “Even when a judgment is paid, the judgment will continue to show as ‘unsatisfied’ until the court records are updated.”

It said defendants — airlines in this case — are responsible for providing updates about the payment status of CCJs.

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