What Happened?

Firstly, I know there are more urgent and pressing issues that governments, families and individuals are facing and that people are dying in their tens of thousands, but we must be on our guard and not allow governments and large organisations to get away with their devious exploits while shrouded in the fog of Covid-19.

I’m also aware that the airline and travel industry, as with many other sectors, is facing a bleak future and will need propping up in some way.

In March, because of the unilateral action of some airlines in refusing refunds, and pressure from some European governments to relax consumer protection law, the European Commission published a clarification document re-affirming the right of passengers to request a cash refund for cancelled flights, as enshrined in its earlier 2004 law which applies to all member states, including Greece.

In April, the Greek government ignored the 2004 law, and the March clarification, and introduced its pick-pocket ‘law’ allowing organisations in the Greek travel industry to refuse to issue cash refunds in favour of a voucher to be used within 18 months – a voucher which, in the event of the collapse of the organisation, is not protected by the Greek government or any other entity. Beware Greeks bearing vouchers! (with apologies to Homer and Virgil).

It was fundamentally immoral, and probably illegal, for the Greek government to pass such legislation which gave the green light to Aegean Airlines to withhold refunds for cancelled flights – in clear contravention of the overriding 2004 European legislation.

Greece’s new ‘law’ is a BAD law in that it applies retrospectively and moves the goal-posts for actions consumers undertook many months ago. If it were to apply only to tickets bought AFTER its introduction, it might be considered fair in that respect.  In the long run, Greece is doing itself no favours by enacting legislation more appropriate to the bad old days of the military junta than to a modern European democracy.

I’m a solo traveller from the UK, so my loss is in hundreds of euros but, for families, those on package tours and for those on expensive inter-continental flights, the effect could be financially catastrophic in these uncertain times when every cent has to be scraped together to get by from day to day.

I don’t know how many travellers are affected overall but it must run into hundreds of thousands. Multipled up by the individual ticket/holiday prices, it amounts to a massive, enforced, interest-free, unsecured loan which, if Aegean had tried to obtain on the same terms from its bankers, would have seen them rolling on the floor of their vaults in fits of laughter. With that kind of windfall, we could see Aegean lending money to the Greek state.

In the 7 years since the merger with Olympic, the company has achieved a total profit after tax of over €450 million, representing around 6.3% of turnover. One suspects the shareholders have done very well thank you.
If the Greek travel industry, and Aegean in paticluar, need large injections of cash to survive, the Greek government and Aegean should be looking to more conventional lenders or to the European Union. Maybe Aegean’s shareholders should be asked to put their  hands in their pockets rather than picking the pockets of private individuals, the majority of whom are probably not even Greek citizens, nor, in many cases, even citizens of Europe.

On March 17, just one day before the publication of the EC document re-affirming passengers’ rights to a cash refund, Aegean made a pathetic attempt to persuade passengers to reschedule their flights up until October 20 by offering a “zero-rebooking fee” ; it was its first cynical attempt to avoid issuing the refunds mandated, and re-affirmed, by the EC regulations.

Come April 2, Aegean had clearly realised that it had failed to pull the wool over the eyes of its passengers and it came up with a new ‘enticement’ – “zero fare difference, no rebooking fees, 2,000 extra Miles+Bonus award miles” – but only if you changed your flight by April 8 2020 to depart, at the latest, by March 27 2021.

Now come on Aegean, you know I wanted to fly in May 2020, why do you think that I would want to swap it for a flight to Greece in the winter? Don’t get me wrong – it can be wonderful in Greece at that time of the year – I’ve been there many times around that date. You could have offered “zero fare difference, no rebooking fees, 2,000 extra Miles+Bonus award miles” for the same flight dates as originally booked, but in 2021 – that would have seemed fair and it might have seen me accept. But NO,  as the English expression goes, “you wanted your cake and you wanted to eat it”, moreover, you didn’t even want to pay for your cake!

I did nothing, as did, clearly, significant numbers of other passengers. Although a friend of mine, with a flight scheduled for June 1, did opt for the “zero fare difference, no rebooking fees, 2,000 extra Miles+Bonus award miles” flight change – it cost her €40!!! Aegean suffers from a clear case of ‘sticky finger’ syndrome for any money which passes through its hands.

On April 13, the Greek government enacted its ‘pick-pocket’ legislation giving, dubious, legal weight to Aegean holding onto its passengers’ money.

The unsuccessful ploys of April 2 and earlier, designed to avoid breaking the 2004 EU law by gaining passengers’ consent, gave rise to a final offer on April 21, the same as that of April 2, but with an extended take-up deadline of April 27 2020. Aegean clearly despertely wanted a voluntary, lawful, acceptance of its keeping hold of passengers’ money.

Finally, on April 23, I recieved an email cancelling my flight and telling me I could reschedule my flights for a later date or receive the now-infamous credit voucher.

I waited to see whether my return flight would also be cancelled and, on May 6, I received the email telling me that my return flight had been cancelled too. It also told me I could request a refund by calling its Athens call centre – that was a pleasant surprise to hear!

Well – just try getting through to that number, not to mention being put on hold at international call rates!! Sorry Aegean, you got it wrong again. Wouldn’t it be better, for both Aegean and its passengers, to have a ‘refund me‘ button on the website? It was yet another ploy for Aegean to avoid its moral and legal obligations. When I did get through, the operative told me he could issue a credit voucher but not a full refund. He told me I had to use the ‘Help & Contact’ page on the Aegean website to achieve that. Why did Aegean not say that in its email to me? It wasted an hour of my time and a call to an Athens number. He said he COULD issue a refund but only as though I were cancelling the booking myself and I would only be refunded for 50% of each flight, plus the taxes, less a €20 administration fee. It worked out that I would receive just half of what I’d paid! Oh those Aegean ‘sticky fingers’ again!

I tried sending Aegean a message via its ‘Help & Contact’ web page – it throws an error! I sent an email to customer services and immediate;y got an automated response saying they would respond in 45-60 days. Using Facebook Messenger to contact them, I did get a response. It restated that Aegean were stealing my money and I couldn’t have it back. See the dialogue with Aegean.

The response, and the terms and conditions, omit to say what will happen if I don’t request a credit voucher, however, the ‘pick-pocket law’ stipulates that the money must be refunded after 18 months.

Following the guidelines published on the European Commission website, I completed an AIR PASSENGER RIGHTS – EU COMPLAINT FORM and emailed it to the Hellenic Civil Aviation Authority whose job it is to enforce the EU 2004 law if airlines refuse a refund. I sent a copy of the email to Aegean The response confirmed that the Hellenic Civil Aviation Authority is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Aegean Airlines and the Greek government in their determination to use the Greek ‘pick-pocket law’ to deprive passengers of their rights under European law. See the dialogue with the Hellenic Civil Aviation Authority.

Having exhausted the procedure recommended by the European Commission to obtain a refund from the airline, it was time to involve the Commission itself. I wrote to Adina Vălean, the Commissioner for Transport, one of whose responsibilities is overseeing compliance with the EU 2004 law. I am awaiting a response to my email. See the dialogue with the European Commission.

I do not intend to request a credit voucher. After the flight dates have passed, Aegean will have failed to deliver what I paid it for by credit card, i.e. to supply me with a return flight to Athens on specific dates. I did NOT pay Aegean to supply me with a credit voucher, NOR did I ask it to supply me with a substitute flight in the dead of winter. I shall therefore request a charge-back from my credit card company on the basis of non-delivery of goods or services as provided for by EU Directive 2014/17/EU (enshrined in UK law in the Consumer Credit Act 1974 Section 75) . This will take the matter out of the hands of Aegean and the Greek government and I shall be dealing with my UK credit card company, under UK law, which will not be subject to the illegal ‘pick-pocket law’ enacted by an immoral Greek government.

But first, I must wait to hear from Adina Vălean, the Commissioner for Transport.