Airlines have been accused of charging customers “extortionate” fees to British tourists and business travellers hit by coronavirus, closed borders and Dominic Raab’s new foreign travel advice.
People are complaining of high penalties charged to change flights and having to pay far higher fares than on the journey they originally booked.
One woman tweeted that the change fee and fare difference for flights to get her and her 12-year old son out of South Africa was between £4,000 and £12,000.
The consumer association Which? said it had heard from an increasing number of passengers who have been asked to pay extortionate flight change fees or have been left stranded altogether in countries placed under lockdown or where travel restrictions are being introduced.
The editor of Which? magazine, Rory Boland, said: “Airlines must stop cashing in on the misfortune of their customers and prioritise getting them home safely – going above and beyond their legal obligations where necessary.
“The government must also up its game and provide British citizens fearful of being stranded abroad with useful advice. Where scheduled services have been withdrawn, it should explore all options to get these people on flights home.”
The government is facing calls to intervene in the growing travel crisis by providing emergency help for stranded Britons after the Foreign Office banned all but essential travel out of the UK and more countries went into lockdown.
Which? said the new travel advice would “place unprecedented financial pressure on travel providers” which will also be expected to refund those who have booked holidays for Easter and beyond. It urged the government to consider all options to support the industry.
Raab issued the new travel advice on Tuesday as the coronavirus pandemic closed borders around the globe, warning Britons against all but essential travel overseas. He said the “unprecedented” speed of the crisis meant that the guidance was necessary.
It takes effect immediately lasting for an initial 30-day period, and could affect hundreds of thousands of passengers trying to get home in coming days.
Office for National Statistics figures give the scale of travel in normal times, showing there were 4.5m overseas visits by Britons in March last year.
Raab said it was unrealistic to expect the government to offer emergency repatriation for many tourists. “No one should be under any illusions. It is costly, it is expensive to coordinate,” he said.
He said international haulage and freight would not be included in the advice because of the importance of maintaining supply chains for goods.
Some tourists fear they may be marooned abroad, with borders closed in countries including Spain, France and the US, and major airlines grounding aircraft.
Gemma O’Grady, who is in the Egyptian resort of Hurghada, said she was “exhausted” by attempts to get easyJet to help her leave the country before the country closed its airports at midday on Thursday.
She complained that easyJet had sent a stock email advising her to book on to another flight, but the remaining flights were full. Then she was told to go to the airport to talk to easyJet staff, but they were only at the boarding gates and passengers could not get past security because their boarding cards were for later flights.
“EasyJet has said if you can find alternative routes, they would cover it, but it’s impossible. We looked at going through Cairo or by land but that is not viable. Now we are afraid the hotels will be closed too as the government has announced that they have to close for deep cleaning.
“The Uber driver we just got back from the airport said he has an apartment across the road we can use, but that is not ideal. We just want to get home. It’s been very stressful, but I’m almost numb now with exhaustion,” she said.
Robbie Glastonbury, another British passenger, was also concerned. “As of yet there has only been one email from easyJet to say: ‘Turn up at the airport and we will issue a first come, first served basis for returns.’ Trouble is it seems the airport security aren’t allowing people through to book! Very concerning situation, we are going to try again early tomorrow morning and hope for the best,” he said.
The travel industry association Abta asked the government to provide emergency loans and to temporarily waive rules that made tour operators refund customers within 14 days, even when suppliers such as hotels or airlines could or would not refund them.
Mark Tanzer, the Abta chief executive, said: “People’s health must be the number one priority but consideration needs to be had for the immense damage being done to UK travel businesses which are facing a crisis of unprecedented scale.”