Airlines have accused the European Commission of a “lack of leadership and clarity” in its recommendations on the use of vouchers in place of cash refunds to consumers for cancelled flights.

The carriers complain the EC recommendations are “unclear and non-binding” and warn they “will create further confusion for airlines and passengers”.

MoreBrussels issues guidance on ‘rebooting’ post-pandemic European tourism

The EC issued a series of recommendations on the resumption of travel and tourism in Europe on Wednesday, including guidance “on vouchers offered to passengers and travellers as an alternative to reimbursement for cancelled package travel and transport services in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic”.

The Commission urged governments to guarantee financial protection against insolvency for the vouchers and consumer organisations to support their use.

But a coalition of carriers’ associations, including Airlines for Europe (A4E) and Iata, hit out at the guidance.

They said not only would the EC’s recommendations “not alleviate” the cash problems facing carriers, but they could also “contribute to the financial distress”.

In a joint statement, the airline associations noted 16 EU member states have requested an emergency amendment to EU Regulation 261 on air passenger rights to defer immediate cash repayments and said this “has been ignored”.

They reported Europe’s airlines faced cash refund claims worth up to €9.2 billion on May 2 “due to a regulation which was never designed to deal with mass cancellations”.

A4E managing director Thomas Reynaert said: “While passengers have a clear right to reimbursement of their tickets, we believe refundable vouchers or a delayed reimbursement represents a fair and reasonable compromise given the unprecedented liquidity situation airlines are facing.”

Rafael Schvartzman, Iata regional vice president for Europe, said: “We are astonished that the Commission has ignored the request from the majority of member states for a temporary amendment to Regulation 261/2004.”

He warned: “Millions of jobs are at risk if airlines collapse. Action from the Commission now would safeguard consumer protection and help airlines through the current crisis.”

Montserrat Barriga, director general of the European Regions Airline Association (ERA), added: “We don’t understand why the Commission has disregarded the recommendations from the majority of member states.

“Amending EU261 is key to survive this catastrophic situation that will otherwise lead to higher prices and fewer routes.”

The associations called again for “a temporary adjustment of the current passenger rights framework”.

They want a temporary suspension of consumers’ right to a refund for a cancelled flight within seven days.

Which? Travel editor Rory Boland said: “It’s positive that the EU has backed the legal right to a refund for cancelled flights and holidays, and is encouraging member states to guarantee that vouchers and credit notes are financially protected should a company fail.

“However, a lack of action or clear guidance from our own government means that UK travellers are still left at the mercy of operators and airlines playing fast and loose with the rules – and facing huge confusion over travel booked in the coming months.

“The government must urgently show it is getting a grip on this scandal and confirm how it will ensure that those who opt for a refund they’re legally entitled to get their money back, and that customers who accept refund credit notes have their money protected.”

Didier Reynders, commissioner for justice and consumers, said: “European consumers can be reassured: the Commission will not downgrade their EU rights for reimbursement for cancelled travel.

“We recommend, however, making vouchers more attractive for those who chose this option.

“In the meantime, freedom of movement is the right European citizens cherish most. It is important to restore this right as soon as the circumstances allow it.”

MoreBrussels issues guidance on ‘rebooting’ post-pandemic European tourism