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Airlines are making it very difficult to get refunds for cancelled flights

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Passengers line up to have COVID-19 tests at Cologne-Bonn Airport in Cologne, Germany, on Aug. 3, 2020. Germany's COVID-19 cases rose by 509 within one day to 210,402, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said on Monday. (Photo by Tang Ying/Xinhua)

The Kliese family wanted to go to Thailand on vacation at the end of July. Months earlier, family father Manuel booked the flights with Swiss, a subsidiary completely owned by Lufthansa. He used the online booking website Opodo and the tickets from Dusseldorf via Zurich to Bangkok and back cost $2,700.

Up to that point the frequent flyer had been a fan of flight booking portals. “You can combine flights from several airlines, which is often not available on the airlines’ own websites. In addition, the market transparency is greater,” says Kliese. Shortly before the planned trip, the flights were cancelled by Swiss – not unusual in COVID-19 times.

At that point the Klieses preferred not to travel at all and instead wanted their money back, which meant they joined millions of other would-be travellers worldwide who are trying to get a refund.

It would seem like a clear case with justified claims against airlines or travel agents. The airline cancelled the flights, therefore the service was not provided, so they should give the money back. European Union law even says that the money must be refunded within seven days to the stranded passenger. But by now this has become a farce and in reality is not happening anywhere.

The airline industry was simply overwhelmed by the Coronavirus crisis and brought to the brink of collapse. In many cases, governments had to step in, as in Germany with Lufthansa.

And now this case is making headlines again because the German government is now co-owner of the airline. The government has made it clear that it will not tolerate procrastination tactics where repayments are due.

“There is money for reimbursements and every legitimate claim will be paid,” Lufthansa board member Harry Hohmeister promised in July.

But at the beginning of August Lufthansa had to admit to the Federal Aviation Office that 1.24 of the 4.48 million reimbursement applications that had accumulated since March had not yet been processed. Even before this disclosure the agency had been threatening the airline with fines.

Lufthansa boss Carsten Spohr recently stated that the total amount of reimbursements for his company will be about $3.54 billion.

At Eurowings around half of the 378,000 applications for refunds are still unprocessed.

There are currently more and more cases where customer claims are literally hanging in the air – like Manuel Kliese’s  – because they did not book directly with an airline and instead used an online comparison portal.

“I feel deliberately fooled by Opodo and I suspect it’s part of a system,” says Kliese. “The portal only refers to the booking page, where only rebooking or vouchers are offered. But no reimbursement,” even though customers are entitled to reimbursement under European law.

However, to enforce this with Opodo is practically impossible, especially when its German branch has a Spanish address. “We couldn’t get through by phone. There was an announcement in the waiting loop that said ‘the airlines do not allow reimbursement’,” recalls Kliese.

Additionally, there was no response to emails sent to the address given. The attempt to send a letter by registered mail with acknowledgment of receipt also failed since Opodo refused to accept it.

From a legal point of view, the situation is actually clear: “Basically and solely, the airline is liable –  the portal is only an agent,” says Ronald Schmid, a travel lawyer and spokesman for the passenger rights website Flightright.

Manuel Kliese also turned directly to Swiss for help – something that rarely works. “The airlines have often played dead,” observes Michael Buller from VIR, an association for online travel providers. Opodo is not a member. Not surprisingly, Swiss, completely rebuffed Kliese.

“The airlines’ reference to the portals is wrong,” says Philipp Kadelbach, legal expert and head of Flightright. His insight from dealing with the airlines: “Many airlines see a lawsuit as a filter – whoever files a complaint gets their money, others get nothing.” DW

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