In the first of a series of weekly bulletins, Sarah Prager examines the latest travel law news.
It is now clear that the travel industry faces a considerable challenge in responding to the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. Although flights and cruises continue to operate, and some hardy British holidaymakers wish to continue with their travel plans, at time of writing the country is days away from total lockdown, and airlines, cruise operators and tour operators face a short and medium term future of unprecedented difficulty.
The British government has promised a package of assistance to all businesses, including the tourism and leisure industries; but it has also recognised that the travel industry is uniquely affected by the inability of consumers to use its services.
In what some will see as a surprising move, the government has announced the suspension of the requirement under the Package Travel, Package Holidays and Package Tours Regulations 1992 that in the event of cancellation of a package holiday the consumer is entitled to a refund. Although perhaps surprising, this announcement was, in retrospect, inevitable; in the first month of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s announcement that consumers should avoid all but essential travel abroad, some two million overseas package holidays were due to take place. All were cancelled, at an estimated cost to the industry of £1 billion. Clearly, with bookings in negative figures (because no holidays are being booked, and millions are being cancelled), this could not continue. On 20th March the European Commission undated its guidance on the regulatory position, encouraging holidaymakers to accept vouchers instead of immediate refunds. Very shortly the British government is expected to provide further guidance allowing package holiday providers to offer consumers the choice between an immediate refund and credit against future travel taking place within the next two years. The scheme will be underwritten by the government, meaning that if the provider becomes insolvent within the next two years, the consumer is entitled to a full refund from the state. The ultimate choice between reimbursement and credit remains with the consumer, however.
ABTA has welcomed the news, commenting:
“This new guidance will give customers the essential assurance that they will either get a holiday or their money back, as well as providing a much needed helping hand to travel companies through these difficult and unprecedented times.”
For some the concession will not go far enough; the Italian government has already implemented similar measures, but has left the choice of whether to refund or provide credit with the package provider. For others, of course, it should not have been made at all; with consumers facing an uncertain financial future, the immediate reimbursement of the cost of a non-essential expense would no doubt have been very welcome.
It appears that with this move the government is attempting to strike a difficult balance between the interests of individual consumers, and confidence in the industry, on one hand; and the needs of holiday providers and their employees, on the other. One thing is certain: much, much more will need to done for the industry in the coming weeks and months. Early indications are that the political will is there to do it, but the proof is in the funding, and time is short.