Air France and KLM have moved to make cash refunds more widely available for flights cancelled amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Dutch airline and its French sister carrier both announced in mid-May that they would offer refunds as an alternative to vouchers, in a major policy reversal.
But at the time they restricted refunds to future cancellations: those taking place after May 15 -- although both companies said that vouchers issued previously could be reimbursed after a year if they had not been fully used.
Now, in a new joint statement, the airlines are giving passengers a choice, regardless of when their flight was cancelled.
"In case of flight cancellations made by Air France or KLM, customers will be able to choose between rebooking, a voucher or a cash refund whatever the cancellation date of their flight. Customers who already received a voucher and wish to opt for a cash refund can do so," the statement says.
The voucher policy remains in place, and the carriers have developed a series of incentives -- including an added value bonus of 15% -- to encourage people to choose this option.
Air France-KLM has been granted an emergency package worth about €10 billion in loans and guarantees from the French and Dutch governments amid the pandemic. Both airlines' fleets have been almost entirely grounded by the collapse in air travel.
But some consumer groups say even greater amounts have effectively been loaned to airlines by out-of-pocket would-be passengers, in the form of payments for flights that never materialised. There are reports of many customers having to wait for long periods for refunds, even in cases where they are offered.
Thousands of European airline passengers have been unable to obtain ticket refunds, with companies offering vouchers or replacement flights instead. European regulations say passengers must be offered a refund if a flight is cancelled.
Lobbying groups have put pressure on the European Union to relax rules on passenger rights amid the devastating impact of the pandemic, but the European Commission has insisted that refunds remain an option.
In a statement to Euronews, EU commissioner Adina-Ioana Vălean said of the airlines' new plan:
"The announcement is a public admission that the airlines failed to respect the contract with their customers. I hope that fulfilling their obligations will be fast and complete, as I know first hand, from all the letters we received, that passengers are long awaiting this.
The right of passengers to be reimbursed is guaranteed by European law, and the law must be respected."
Valean continued: "For a high profile sector, such as aviation, customer care is paramount. During this crisis we have taken countless measures to help airlines with liquidity issues so that they can also reimburse passengers’ tickets. Besides the problems faced due to the crisis, now they also have to regain consumers’ confidence, and passengers’ rights are the foundation of that."