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Though the coronavirus pandemic served a plethora of blows around the world, one of the sectors hardest hit was the travel industry. Ryanair, like most airlines, found itself faced with cancellations like never before, and a sudden stack of refunds to fight its way through.
While the airline believed itself to have made substantial progress on “catching up” with issuing refunds, bosses say they have been hit with complaints from customers who claim they have not received their refunds.
Ryanair claims it discovered these customers have been paid.
The airline spoke out publicly against certain online travel agents, which they believe are using “screen scraping” technology to take flights from the Ryanair website, without “an agreement” and resell them to customers, often at a higher price.
The Irish-carrier believes that in a bid to disguise these higher price points, some online travel agents switch out customer payment details for their own – a move they say is causing major problems for cash returns.
It’s a discovery which has pushed the budget airline to “invest at a cost to Ryanair” in new ways to “ensure that our customers get paid”.
Speaking exclusively to Express.co.uk, Dara Brady, Ryanair’s director of marketing and digital said he felt there is a common misconception about the online travel agents they believe are using screen scraping technology.
He claims “these are very visible, household brands” which Ryanair claim are ramping up the cost of tickets, and “substituting” passenger details for their own details.
He lists the likes of On the Beach and loveholidays, both of which have vehemently denied claims to Express.co.uk.
What’s more, both of these online travel agents say they have made “significant progress” in processing passenger refunds.
loveholidays, for example, have reportedly issued 79 percent of all owed airline refunds.
They say that those outstanding are due to “an ongoing issue with a small number of airlines, particularly Ryanair, that are holding on to money which should be refunded to our customers”.
It’s a confusing dispute, with both sides pointing the finger.
Ryanair’s director of marketing and digital, however, holds firm in his argument.
He believes online travel agents are to blame for the hold-up.
The substitution of credit card and contact information, says Mr Brady, is why many customers are still out of pocket.
“What a lot of passengers don’t realise, over the last six months, this issue has really come to the forefront of the business,” explained Mr Brady.
“The issue became more apparent when we had customers saying ‘I didn’t get my refund. Why do you keep saying refund is paid? I didn’t get mine’ despite the fact the refund was paid on July 10, four months ago. Where has the money gone?
“And because of that noise, because of the volume of that noise, in a normal period you wouldn’t see it if you only had 100 cancellations in a month because it is still only a percentage of our overall bookings, but because we have had millions of cancellations it became much more visible.”
Now the airline is on a mission to “educate” consumers and the media on the risks it claims exist when using online travel agents.
“Companies are generally surcharging or putting an extra charge on top of the prices that you would see on Ryanair.com,” he alleged.
“But the bigger issue we face in relation to refunds is, when a customer goes to make a booking, you will put in your real contact details.
“You put in your real email address and you would put in your credit card details.
“And when you hit pay, what happens in the background is these websites are running an automated script to make the booking on Ryanair.com.
“So, when the booking is made on Ryanair.com in real-time they are substituting your email address for a fake email address, and swapping out your payment detail for a virtual credit card. They take your details and they charge your card directly themselves, but actually what they book with Ryanair is completely different.”
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What’s more, Mr Brady believes Ryanair isn’t the only airline suffering – he says they are just the only ones speaking out.
“I think that some airlines, I would imagine they are facing the same problems for sure but a lot of airlines have been staying very quiet on refund and processing and what they have done in relation to refunds – they probably don’t want to create visibility of the issue that they have had,” he said.
“We’re taking a different approach.
“I would imagine other airlines absolutely are facing the same problem but just aren’t making a big issue out of it and certainly, none of them has put a process in place to try and pay them directly.”
Mr Brady continued: “The problem we have is that when we get the booking into our system the email address is not the email address relating to the customer. And the payment detail is not the payment detail that the customer used to make their booking.”
This is where Ryanair claims the issue lies when trying to get the cash back to the consumer.
“It is having a significant impact on thousands of customers who are unable to get the contact details to contact us directly.
“If you imagine when you make a booking, and you ring Ryanair and say ‘well I have got a flight booked with you’ but you can’t give us the email address on the booking because it has been changed, even though you didn’t know about it, you can’t give us the payment details like the last four digits of the payment card. You can’t give us the contact phone number,” said Mr Brady.
“We have had lots of examples where we made payment back to the booking, the payment that was used for the booking.”
When presented with these claims both loveholidays and On the Beach say this isn’t the case from their perspective.
“We want to reassure all our customers that we never use fake customer information to make bookings. Without exception, we provide Ryanair with full customer contact details at the time of booking. This allows the airline to make direct contact with customers in the event of any changes or updates to their flight and customers to manage their flights,” a loveholidays spokesperson told Express.co.uk.
“We also want to reassure all our customers that we do not block any customers from receiving a cash refund or voucher from the airline if that is what they have chosen.
“If a Ryanair flight is booked through the loveholidays platform, customers have access to their flight booking information on the Ryanair website, exactly as if they had booked directly.”
Similarly, On the Beach said: “We strongly refute the claims made by Ryanair. Our processes, used by all online travel agents, are longstanding and make it easy for customers to book a full package holiday online, protected by ATOL – something that cannot be offered when booking flights alone,” a spokesperson told Express.co.uk.
“There have been a number of incidents where Ryanair has told customers, and indeed the media, that it has refunded loveholidays when we have not actually received the refund,” said loveholidays after looking at documents submitted by Ryanair as evidence.
“In instances such as [the ones highlighted by Ryanair], where customers have requested a cancelled flight refund and the money has not been returned to them, we have initiated a chargeback request on their behalf where it is possible for us to do so.
“This process compels the airline to issue a cash refund to us where one is due so we can pass it on to customers but unfortunately it is not a quick process.”
The process can last as long as 90 days, due to credit card scheme rules, but loveholidays say it is a step they are taking to ensure money is rightfully returned to consumer pockets.
The holiday provider did admit that they use different payment options to transfer money to Ryanair, however, they reject Ryanair’s reasoning for why they do so.
“As we offer various payment options to customers, we use our own payment cards to pay for the flights at the time of booking. There is nothing preventing Ryanair from paying cancelled flight refunds back to our cards, as they routinely did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” stated the loveholidays spokesperson.
“Flight refunds are not in our control as we do not hold the money customers pay for their flights – that money is transferred to the airline when customers make their booking and we need airlines to refund these sums so we can pass them to customers. All flight money refunded by an airline is passed on to customers within our stated timeline of five working days.
“Certain airlines have worked hard to speed up their refund processes so that we can get money for flights back to our customers as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, other airlines – including Ryanair – are taking much longer to process refunds.”
In a similar vein, On the Beach say they also pay flights with a separate form of payment to that of the customer but deny this is to hide information from passengers.
“Our customers can also see all their holiday information in their personalised log-in section of our website,” said an On the Beach spokesperson.
“On the Beach books all elements of a package holiday using its own payment method, meaning one single payment is taken from the customer’s card rather than multiple transactions for each part of the package.
“If a holiday is cancelled we provide refunds in cash, with the flight part of a package refunded as soon as we receive the funds from the airline. Any existing delays for flight refunds are due to delayed receipt of funds from the airline, to On the Beach.
“On the Beach looks after all communication with customers about their holiday, so there is no need to share personal data with third parties. We take our customer data and privacy very seriously in line with GDPR and always make sure that our customers receive information and updates that may be passed on to us by third parties.”
loveholidays also point to Ryanair’s decision to offer vouchers for future travel, as one reason that may be causing difficulties.
“Rather than providing our customers with the cash refunds they are due by refunding the payment card in the usual way, Ryanair has recently changed its approach to refunds relating to cancellations made as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, seeking to provide amendments, vouchers or refunds to customers directly instead of refunding back to payment cards,” continued loveholidays.
“The change has essentially made online travel agents, including loveholidays, blind to any potential refund in process directly between the customer and Ryanair, creating confusion and further delay.
“Ryanair’s revised refund arrangements are a clear delay tactic, causing huge hold-ups in customers receiving cash refunds, hoping that we and our customers will wait unacceptably long times.”
Yet, Ryanair said they have “nothing to gain” from these counter claims.
What’s more, the airline claims to have set up a new way for customers who have purchased via online travel agents to claim their money back directly – cutting out online travel agents from the process.
“That’s why we have been trying to do a lot of work to educate the media, to educate consumers, we’re doing a lot of exposés on our website and again I reiterate this is all, this is championing for the customer,” said Mr Brady.
“There is nothing in this for us. Our obligation is to pay refunds to the customer, it’s in our interests to make sure the customer gets paid.
The airline boss states they are “investing at a cost to Ryanair and we get nothing out of it only trying to ensure that our customers get paid.”
He added: “This is about trying to create a win for the customers, it’s not a win for Ryanair, it’s a win for the customers.”
However, Ryanair believes its new process will help ensure passengers owed money won’t be waiting much longer to receive it.
“The new process allows customers to input their details directly via the Ryanair website, after which a member of Ryanair’s dedicated team will follow up with them to confirm security details and ultimately get the ball rolling on the refund process,” explained Mr Brady.
He things may take a “little bit longer” as the airline is “manually” verifying passenger claims to ensure the right money goes to the right people.
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