When the pandemic rocked our world in the spring of 2020, Irish consumers quickly began to find out who their friends were.
Some companies – facing a crisis of unimaginable magnitude – have succeeded in doing the right thing for their customers. Refunds for events and vacations that had to be canceled due to Covid were processed swiftly, with businesses taking a huge financial hit at an extremely uncertain time to ensure their customers stay as happy as they could be. to be.
Many consumers, also facing disruption on an unimaginable scale, have still managed to do the right thing for businesses. The vacations not taken in 2020 were purposely – if unfortunately – postponed to 2021 and then to 2022. The postponement of concerts and events to distant dates was accepted without complaint while people agreed to take vouchers for them. flights instead of the money they were legally entitled to.
But that’s not far from the full story, as the image painted by the Pricewatch mailbag over the past 18 months has been all too clear.
Too often people have been left behind and put to the test. It was impossible for them to come into contact with companies which had a legal obligation to take care of them. And sometimes their rights were simply blatantly ignored.
Covid wasn’t the only story in town for hard-pressed consumers, although there were times when it seemed to be. We also had to deal with Brexit, something that hit Ireland hard and led to a potentially dramatic reduction in the rights of people facing operators across the Irish Sea. There was also the massive online movement to shop both at home and abroad.
More than a year of unprecedented unrest has meant the European Consumer Center (ECC) has had a busy time and in a report released last week it described the attempt to protect consumer rights during Covid as a ” exhausting task “.
But first, a reminder of what ECC is. It is a European-wide organization that was created two decades ago to engage with consumers. It provides information and advisory services on cross-border rights as well as the fight for these rights on behalf of consumers. He often wins fights that might otherwise be impossible to win due to language barriers or because consumers here have no idea where to turn when bad things happen to them elsewhere in the EU.
If an Irish consumer is having difficulty with a retailer or service provider outside that jurisdiction, the ECC can help build a strong case, which they pass on to their counterpart in the country concerned who can then contact the customer. trader to have the problem resolved. And if a consumer elsewhere in Europe has issues with an Ireland-based business, they will often end up on the ECC offices.
Last year, her team of case managers handled a total of 8,035 consumer inquiries and in just three months between April and June 2020, she saw her number of cases triple from the same months in 2019.
As might be expected, travel was the reason for the increase, with aviation virtually shutting down as soon as the pandemic hit in March 2020 and only really starting to recover in recent weeks.
The European Court of Auditors recently released a special report – titled Air Passenger Rights During the Covid-19 Pandemic – and found that “key passenger rights were not protected in this unprecedented crisis, particularly at the start of the pandemic ”.
Auditors said refunds to air passengers for canceled flights have been suspended and passengers are being treated differently in the EU. “At the same time, Member States have provided unprecedented amounts of state aid to airlines and tour operators. “
The court noted that member states have never linked this aid to passenger reimbursement for airlines, but most countries have done so for package operators. He said that “Member States have made these decisions for the airlines despite the fact that the [European] Commission had made it clear that under state aid rules they could do this ”.
As a result of all this chaos, air passenger issues accounted for 64% of the total number of cross-border complaints received by ECC Ireland in 2020, up 130% from 2019.
From the start of the pandemic, there were 5,000 complaints from consumers across Europe against Irish airlines, with the main driver behind the unprecedented demand for ECC Ireland’s services being travel restrictions, in particular flight cancellations.
According to the ECC, in the aftermath of the first travel bans in 2020, a number of large international and domestic companies operating in the aviation and travel industries – there are prices to guess who they are – have become unresponsive consumer rights claims. or, in fact, sanctions by the bodies responsible for the enforcement of consumer rights.
As the year progressed, another problem loomed on the horizon for the ECC, with airline passengers reaching out to complain about getting vouchers instead of cash refunds, which under of European Union consumer law, must be issued within seven days of the flight cancellation. Vouchers can only be issued with the express consent of the passenger.
Under rules everyone thought were in place to protect consumers, vouchers can only be valid for up to 12 months, by which time they should be redeemable. In many cases, however, airlines have extended the validity of vouchers until 2021 instead of issuing refunds, which have been unreasonably delayed or simply refused.
The ECC also reported that there were serious difficulties for people who booked vacations through some – but by no means all – travel agents and online booking platforms. His report says the refund process took even longer, with refunds needing to be passed from airlines to passengers through the third parties who handled the booking. The ECC says that “has made life particularly difficult for passengers impacted by Covid-19 cancellations”.
According to the ECC, he succeeded in “mass resolving 4,000 complaints at source, ensuring that reimbursements would be made by airlines as soon as possible and within a prolonged but reasonable time.”
Scarcity of goods
By the end of 2020, ECC Ireland and its sister offices in EU member states, as well as Norway and Iceland have secured refunds for canceled flights for Irish and European passengers of over $ 4 million. ‘euros.
Covid-19 has also caused other problems, the report notes. The ECC has identified the scarcity of some goods available within the EU and the growing dependence of consumers on e-commerce during the pandemic.
“This has led to heavy buying in non-European jurisdictions with less regulated or unenforceable consumer protections,” the ECC said. “The pandemic has also revealed the [inability] many EU companies to ensure the supply of stocks, as well as consumer protection.
The ECC adds that “the frequent imposition of transport shutdowns and unprecedented disruptions to shipping routes and supply chains [meant] enforcing consumer protections has been a grueling task in 2020 overall ”.
An interesting excerpt from the report suggests that another reason for the dramatic situation that unfolded over the last year and up to 2021 with so many people abandoned was that due to the novel nature of the disruption induced by the pandemic “some of the laws at the level of the European Union do not provide recourse for consumers in these situations”.
It indicates that “the situation was further influenced by the consequences of the enactment by some EU member states of emergency national legislation, which prevented the application of consumer rights protections at the level of the EU. EU ”.
He suggests that the EU consumer-focused measures due in 2021-2022 “will aim to address the legacy of the pandemic and empower individual consumers to assert their rights while creating adequate institutional implementation strategies, including enhanced cross-border cooperation. , which will lead to a more transparent and efficient application of consumer rights ”.
“With the immediate and devastating impact of Covid-19 on economies across Europe and the world, 2020 will prove to be a historic year and, indeed, deeply difficult in terms of consumer protection and education.” said Cyril Sullivan, director of ECC Ireland.
“In a few weeks of March 2020, we experienced a tripling of our volume of drug abuse cases. While ECC Ireland has always played an important role in the infrastructure for consumer protection here in Ireland and within the wider European Union network of European Consumer Centers, the unprecedented demand for our services throughout throughout last year and until 2021 reaffirmed the importance of our work. in a meaningful way.