Airlines have been urged to consider making contracts more flexible to help tour operators plan future holidays as uncertainty over how long social distancing measures might be in place lingers.

Speaking in a special Travel Weekly advice webinar with law firm Travlaw, senior counsel Stephen Mason said some of his tour operator clients had expressed concern about putting on holidays in the upcoming winter season for fear customers may cancel, leaving them to foot the bill for flights with airlines.

Operators, legally, “have to provide the service”, Mason said. “Some of our clients are very anxious about, entering into contracts with airlines for the future,” he added. “If there is a risk that the holidays won’t actually go ahead, asking the airlines to cancel those contracts again, with all the problems, again, it’s a case of once bitten twice shy.

“I’m finding that tour operators are a bit shy about making the contract necessary to make future holidays actually happen. Maybe airlines need to think about being a bit more flexible in terms of sales.”

Mason also pointed out the legal uncertainty of customers’ rights to cancel under the Package Travel Regulations – which list 10 “significant changes” that would entitle a customer to a refund.

He said customers having to wear face masks would be unlikely to count as a “significant change”, but that bars, restaurants, and night clubs being closed in destinations might be deemed a significant change – if the package was described, for example, as “right in the heart of the action”.

Mason also raised the question of ‘What happens if the customer still doesn’t want to go?’ either because they “simply don’t fancy it” or because they don’t want to face a 14-day quarantine on return to the UK, which may still be in force.

He said travel companies could legally enforce their cancellation charges on the two examples he gave citing a ‘disinclination to travel’ from customers. But, he noted: “Saying what the answers in law are, doesn’t make it easy. It’s a tough message either way. It’s tough to tell consumers they’re going to lose their money because of a situation when it’s understandable they don’t want to go.”

Mason also pointed out that tour operators are “even less likely to be able to get refunds from their suppliers” than in the current situation on travel booked since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic. “There’s no easy answer,” he said. “The messaging needs to be right.”

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