The controversy over denied and delayed refunds for coronavirus cancelled flights and holidays has sent trust in the travel industry to a record low, new research reveals.

The poll of more than 2,000 people by consumer association Which? found that trust in airlines and holiday companies has dropped from a net score of nine in February to minus 12 in May – a drop of 21 points.

It is only the second time since Which? records began seven years ago that the net score for trust in airlines and holiday companies has dropped below zero.

The only previous occasion net trust in the industry entered negative figures was briefly after the collapse of Thomas Cook in September, when the net score decreased to minus 1%.

Just one in five (22%) said they trust the two industry sectors, while 34% said they did not trust them, giving a net score of minus 12.

This was in comparison to three in ten (32%) people saying they trusted the sectors in February – just shortly after the coronavirus outbreak began in the UK – and nearly a quarter (23%) saying they did not trust airlines and holiday companies, giving a net score of nine.

Seven in ten who had booked a holiday or flight prior to the lockdown had some or all of their plans cancelled, with the majority (58%) still waiting for their money to be returned to them.

Of those waiting for a refund for a cancelled trip, nearly half (47%) have been left more than £500 out of pocket and 27% are owed more than £1,000.

The findings come on the same day as the UK’s aviation minister and the Civil Aviation Authority face questions on coronavirus’ impact on flights and travel from MPs on the Commons transport select committee.

Which? warned that the government and aviation regulator cannot delay taking action against airlines and holiday companies that it knows are breaking the law on refunds for any longer, to avoid trust in the sector plummeting further.

Government intervention is “essential” to prevent any further damage to the industry, it added.

This is despite the CAA announcing a review of airlines’ handling of refunds during the crisis and the Competition and Markets Authority investigating cancellations and refunds for UK holiday accommodation.

Which? Travel editor Rory Boland said: “These latest figures are a damning indictment of the behaviour of many airlines and holiday companies in recent weeks.

“With customers being told to either wait months for their money back or accept a voucher that may prove worthless if a company fails, it should come as a surprise to no-one that trust has plummeted so drastically.”

He added: “Any further delay risks permanent damage to trust in the travel industry.

“The regulator must come down strongly on any airlines found to be systemically denying or delaying refunds for cancelled flights and holidays, and the government must urgently set out how it will support the industry and restore trust in the sector.”