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The travel industry around the world has been pummelled by the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown measures world leaders have put in place for their countries. Here in the UK, airlines have seen passenger figures plummet in an industry that had once been one of the fastest-growing sectors for the UK economy.
Ryanair, like many airlines, has been faced with “an unprecedented volume of refund requests and cancellations” in the face of the first lockdown.
Now, just as the airline has made substantial progress on “catching up” with refunding customers, it could well be hit with a double-whammy of destruction.
Boris Johnson reinstated a draconian lockdown on the citizens of England, not only banning them from day-to-day activities such as socialising, shopping and visiting the gym, he also put an end to travel in all of its forms.
It is a move that has been condemned by the Irish carrier as “incredibly damaging and ineffective.”
Yet with the threat of a “no-deal” Brexit looming on the horizon, Ryanair’s director of marketing and digital Dara Brady says there is the potential for more “risk” yet to hit the industry.
“We think lockdowns are incredibly damaging and ineffective,” he told Express.co.uk.
“The reality is that lockdowns don’t get rid of covid. All they do is, for a period of time, we are all going to be in lockdown.
“Industries such as aviation, tourism, travel will be decimated and jobs will be lost and ultimately a couple of weeks later we will open back up and be in a similar situation where rates will continue to rise to where they were previously and then there will be a yo-yo effect that comes with it.”
However, while the aviation industry makes its way through the aftermath of this second lockdown, Brexit is looming on the horizon.
“Brexit hasn’t gone away, it is another risk,” warned Mr O’Brady.
“It all depends on what falls out of it. Will they get a deal, will they not get a deal? If they don’t get a deal is there an additional transitional period for a period of time? But certainly it will mean that there will be some period of transition for sure in the event of a no deal.”
While it is “very difficult to say what will happen next”, he admitted there is risk ahead and the likelihood of “changes that will come into effect”.
He continued: “There is going to have to be some fallback, some agreement on travel rights and open skies and I expect that something will be done on that but again it’s a risk to the travel industry in the UK. That is one that probably just has not been in the spotlight because of covid.”
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The best way to bolster the industry in preparation for the onslaught of Brexit-related changes is to boost support for travel during covid.
“The reality is we advocate for stronger policies on travel and tourism, which is primarily based around test and tracing and have a better system in place,” Mr Brady said.
“Until a vaccine comes along, whether we like it or not it is about finding a way to live with covid.”
He believes that travel was used as a “poster boy” in the early days of the pandemic in order to “divert from” the concerning rate of transmission in other places which, according to Mr Brady, are far riskier than hopping on board a flight.
“I would also highlight that the transmission cases through travel are extremely low. If not next to non-existent,” he said.
“The transmission cases from travel-related cases is tiny as a representation of the overall proportion of covid cases in circulation. Take Ireland for example, you’re far more likely to get covid going down to buy bread at the local shop than you are on the flight. The reality is that they should be far more focussed on house parties and meat factories and nursing homes but they have an over-focus on travel that is not necessarily the root cause of mass transmission.”
He adds: “Over 1.2 billion passengers have travelled throughout 2020 and I think there have been less than 40 cases of transmission so again you’re more likely to catch covid going to the supermarket than you are flying which is ironic then when it comes to the thousands and thousands of jobs – not just flying but the indirect jobs such as hotels, taxis, limos – the economic aspect of it is going to be very very damaging and it is going to have a lasting effect.”
Already the airline has been forced to pay out “millions” of refunds, sparking Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary to suggest the government “pay refunds themselves”.
“I echo Michael’s views,” said Mr Brady, “Flights are still operating and we have people travelling by and large for essential travel, which is what the majority of travel is at the minute.
“It is essential travel. I think for anyone that does find themselves impacted, I think fortunately for them we implemented a free flight change fee promotion back in early summer and anyone who has got a booking will be able to change their booking and the flight change fee will be waived free of charge.
“For anyone that was due to travel that can no longer travel, they should be able to change their travel to a period in the future and a lot of the flights are moving to are priced at the same price or less than what they paid originally.”
Despite his despair at lockdowns, Mr Brady explains Ryanair is doing more to try and protect its passengers in the face of any unprecedented situations in the future.
The airline is now offering passengers the choice of a voucher for future travel if their flight is cancelled, or a full cash refund, though Mr Brady points out passengers who want a cash refund over a voucher must request it via the Ryanair website.
“I think ultimately it will but again we need to educate customers that it is available. I am still usually surprised that there are a lot of customers that don’t realise it is available to them,” he said.
“I think that is one of the problems that we have. I think a lot of people are just not aware that this process is in place for them and they are kind of sitting here going ‘where is my refund?’ So, I think that the more people become aware of the process, the better it will be in the long return.”
The airline has also recently launched a direct refund process for customers who booked via a third party travel ages and are facing difficulties receiving their cash back.
Mr Brady this has meant an “investment in IT and technology” to boost the customer verification process, in what he describes as a “win for the customer”.
However, given the manual aspect of the new process, which requires customers to fill out an online form and provide evidence such as utility bills or ID, it can take a little bit longer for refunds to be paid.
“The process takes a little bit longer because there is a manual process verification step. So you have to submit a form online, you fill out a form and you upload a copy of your passport and a signed form.
“Then what we have is a process where we are checking each of those. So, it is a little bit longer but generally speaking anyone that is using that process should be paid within a matter of two to three weeks from the point they submit.
“Again, it was probably a little bit slower at the start but certainly at this point in time, anyone that is submitting is generally getting dealt with in a reasonable time period. Probably averaging at around a two to three week period.”
He remains hopeful, though, that the longer the process is in place, the faster customers will be refunded, and ultimately the better equipped Ryanair will be to deal with any potential disruptions in future.
“We’re trying to speed that up and it will get quicker,” he added.
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