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Have to cancel your flight? Airlines steer clear of informing consumers about refunds

A leading lawyer at Finland’s consumer advocacy association says many airlines deliberately skirt refund payments associated with customer flight cancellations. Airline passengers are rarely correctly informed of their rights when they cancel flights and many aren’t aware that they are always legally entitled to a refund of several components of the ticket cost, including taxes, fuel surcharges and airport fees.

Lentokoneen siipi ilmassa.
Obtaining a refund for a cancelled flight often requires much persistence. Image: Kalevi Rytkölä / Yle

Tuula Sario, chief lawyer for Finland’s leading consumer advocacy organisation The Finnish Competition and Consumer Authority (FCCA), says that when a passenger cancels a plane ticket, all of the costs that the airline collects from third parties should always be refunded to the ticket purchaser, regardless of the assigned terms and conditions.

After receiving a tip from an anonymous caller saying that Finnair’s cancellation services gave no information on customer refund rights for cancelled flights, Yle decided to investigate further. A reporter called Finnair’s cancellation services to enquire about a refund for an economy class ticket. The Finnair employee at first offered no information, but after Yle read the text concerning the consumer’s right to the tax refund straight from the FCCA guidelines, the representative said some refunds were possible.

Finnair’s director in charge of pricing Tomi Hänninen later apologized for the incident, saying he believes it was an isolated case.

“It's unfortunate to hear and we must address this matter if things did transpire in this way. This is information that all air passengers should be informed about,” he said.

Quick checks at other airlines offered varying results. Air Baltic’s customer service representative freely offered customer refund information, but Norwegian volunteered nothing. Air Berlin refused to reveal any information on their return policy without a reservation number.

What exactly are our rights?

Information on refunds for customer-cancelled flights is often concealed behind several clicks on airline websites. The FCCA’s chief lawyer Tuula Sario says the airlines are purposely negligent in the way they inform customers. 

“All airlines are very anti-consumer rights; unfortunately this also includes our domestic carrier Finnair. They work from the notion that nothing is voluntarily surrendered to the consumer, making it a point not to inform passengers of their rights,” she says.

Sario says the airline policy is founded on the hope that consumers won’t have the tenacity to fight for their refunds, especially if the sums involved are small.

“The truth is that most claims are dropped when it gets to the point where the infraction should be reported to the Consumer Disputes Board. Each case has to be considered on an individual basis, one customer at a time, and so precedent cases are of no assistance,” says Sario.

Taxes are often only a small component of the overall cost of a plane ticket, but fuel surcharges compose a larger chunk of the price and the FCCA says consumers are also entitled to every cent back under certain conditions. Sario says consumer should insist on their refunds, even if it requires a little work.

“The Consumer Disputes Board proceedings are free for consumers and when enough airline passengers actively pursue refunds, it could bring results,” she says.

Step up and demand what's coming to you

Sario says many consumers have the mistaken impression that airlines are somehow to be trusted.

“We Finns revere airlines to an undue extent, as if they had some kind of authority. We falsely believe that the firm will do the right thing and pay legislated compensation without a fuss. Unfortunately this is not the case,” she says.

Sario says she understands that sometimes the circumstances behind a flight cancellation can be traumatic, leaving the consumer unwilling to go through the trouble of claiming their refunds. Nevertheless, she feels that everyone should still demand they receive what is entitled to them as a matter of principle.

“There’d be a lot of money out there in the wrong pockets if we would all just relinquish our right to recoup our expenses.”

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