Spain to take legal action against airlines who failed customers during coronavirus crisis

Iberia protested Tuesday after the Spanish government pledged to sue 17 airlines for failing to inform travellers about their right to a refund for flights cancelled during the pandemic.

Spain to take legal action against airlines who failed customers during coronavirus crisis
Photos: AFP

A day after the consumer affairs ministry said it would take legal action, the Spanish carrier hit back.

“Iberia and Iberia Express inform customers clearly about their rights,” it said.   

Under European law, when a flight is cancelled, passengers must be offered  an alternative flight or a refund. The refund may be voucher, but only if the customer consents, the European Commission clarified last month.

“Shortcomings in the information provided on customers' rights following the cancellation of flights,” led to  the legal action, the ministry said.    

“The misleading omission of information by airlines in offering vouchers (as the only option) constitutes unfair trading involving a clear lack of consent as well as a breach of the law,” a statement said.

Iberia said it was “bewildered” by the allegations and denounced the “very damaging effects” of such a move on both its reputation and “financial ability to overcome the current paralysis”.

Companies to be named in the lawsuit are Air Europa, Air France, Binter Canarias, EasyJet, Eurowings, Iberia (Iberia Express and Air Nostrum), Jet 2, KLM, Latam Airlines, Lufthansa, Ryanair, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), Transavia, Thomson Airways (TUI), United Airlines, Volotea and Wizzair.   

“Refunds are always possible. This option has been clearly offered to our customers,” Germany's Lufthansa told AFP.

“But it must be understood that refunds are not being paid out within the normal timeframe,” it said.

The refund issue has become a political hot potato in the European Union.   

At the end of April, 12 European states including France — but not Spain — asked the bloc to suspend the law requiring airlines to offer full refunds for flights cancelled due to the crisis.

But the Commission said airlines must offer refunds and cannot force passengers to accept vouchers, while suggesting they incentivise vouchers as a way to support the hard-hit tourism sector.

French consumer rights group UFC-Que Choisir also said in May it would file a legal complaint against 20 airlines for failing to reimburse customers for cancelled flights.

With the near freezing of international traffic, airlines face an unprecedented financial crisis. Industry body Airlines for Europe (A4E) says €9.2 billion ($10.3 billion) had been lost in unused tickets by the end of May.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) gave a similar estimate, saying unused tickets amounted to some $10 billion in Europe and $35 billion globally.

READ MORE: Spain records zero daily coronavirus deaths for second day running

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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.