Following a finding by American regulators that British Airways failed to promptly compensate passengers when their flights were canceled or adversely impacted by pandemic-era restrictions in early 2020, the airline was fined $1.1 million.
The Department of Transportation stated in an order justifying the decision that British Airways failed to “maintain adequate functionality of its customer service phone lines” when it was swamped with requests for refunds.
Around 1,200 complaints from unhappy passengers who claimed British Airways failed to promptly compensate them after their flight was either cancelled or badly delayed were received by the DOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection.
Due to local government pandemic regulations, British Airways was forced to abruptly close two of its five global call centers at the beginning of the pandemic, placing additional strain on its remaining customer service lines. The remaining lines didn’t resume operation at full capacity until August 2020.
However, the airline did not offer a substitute during that time and disabled the main way for consumers to get a flight refund on its website. Instead, the airline advised customers to phone its customer support line, but “many consumers were unable to reach British Airways”, according to the DOT.
U.S. regulators claim that when customers looked at the British Airways website to learn how to request a refund, they were given “contradictory and false information” about refund possibilities, which caused some customers to mistakenly request a future travel voucher when they really wanted a cash refund.
The airline denied the customer’s request for a refund, claiming that the future travel coupon was definitive and irrevocable. British Airways didn’t bring back its online flight refund option until November 2020, by which time the majority of passengers had already managed to get in touch with the company.
British Airways responded to the DOT investigation by asserting that it performed admirably given the “astronomical number of flight cancellations” and rejecting claims that passengers had long wait times.
The airline reported that in 2020, it granted 2.8 million refunds and paid out more than $763 million in refunds, of which $40 million went toward non-refundable tickets. The airline maintained that it was evident that getting a refund wasn’t overly difficult given that 70% of affected passengers succeeded in getting one.
However, British Airways has consented to a cooperation agreement with the DOT that includes a fine of $1.1 million. The airline will only be forced to pay half of the penalties; the remaining sum will serve as credit for non-refundable tickets that British Airways voluntarily refunded.