The UK competition regulator has launched enforcement cases into Ryanair and British Airways after the airlines refused to offer customers refunds for flights they were unable to take during the pandemic.
The announcement on Wednesday by the Competition and Markets Authority brought a furious response from BA, which said the investigation was “incredible” and any punishment could put jobs at risk.
The CMA said it was investigating whether BA and Ryanair had broken competition law and had written to both companies detailing its concerns. The regulator opened the probe in December.
During the pandemic, when customers were unable to fly because of lockdowns in the UK, BA offered customers vouchers or the chance to rebook their flights and Ryanair only provided the option to rebook.
Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, said: “While we understand that airlines have had a tough time during the pandemic, people should not be left unfairly out of pocket for following the law.
“Customers booked these flights in good faith and were legally unable to take them due to circumstances entirely outside of their control. We believe these people should have been offered their money back.”
The investigation is a new headache for BA and Ryanair as the airline industry faces the growing prospect of a second lost summer of travel.
BA, which has offered more than 3m refunds to customers during the crisis, said: “It is incredible that the government is seeking to punish further an industry that is on its knees.”
“Any action taken against our industry will only serve to destabilise it, with potential consequences for jobs, business, connectivity and the UK economy,” the airline said.
Ryanair said it welcomed the review and had paid customers whose flights operated during periods of lockdown “in justified cases”. Since June, all customers have been able to rebook flights without paying a fee, the carrier said.
Airlines were faced with a huge backlog of refunds that built up when nearly all their planes were grounded during the first wave of Covid-19 last spring. More than £3bn has since been repaid to customers, according to the Civil Aviation Authority, stretching the industry’s finances as the crisis drags into its second year.
But airlines have also been under growing scrutiny for their policies when they continued to operate flights during lockdowns in the UK, when non-essential travel was banned. Airlines argue that many passengers still needed to fly because of work, and many did not offer refunds.