Coronavirus is all the fear right now. Despite afflicting far fewer people than the common flu, which has killed more than 15,000 people in the USA alone this year, versus circa 3,000 from Coronavirus, widespread panic has swept the world as containment has widely failed. Airlines are halting routes, countries are imposing quarantines on passengers from certain areas and uncertainty is the only certainty.

Among the greatest frustration with the outbreak, airlines aren’t making it clear when it comes to cancellations, refunds or re-booking – and it’s borderline ridiculous. Here’s what you need to know, so that you can be empowered to stand up to airlines with your actual flying rights…

Yellow crane tower and Wuhan Yangtze Great Bridge scenic view in Wuhan Hubei ChinaIt Depends Where

If your flight is from the European Union, you’re afforded much greater protection than anywhere else in the world, but ultimately much of this comes down to where you’re going.

If the issue is that you no longer wish to go, but there’s no government health advisory against going, and an airline hasn’t changed or cancelled your flight – you really have no protection, other than to try your travel insurance.

If your flight is cancelled or postponed though, flights booked on EU airlines, or departing Europe – yes, the UK still counts – require the airline to offer you a distinct set of choices, and breaking those guarantees can cost the airline real money in fines.

In other parts of the world, you’re effectively stuck with the policy of the airline in question and how they are treating Coronavirus. It’s generally best to wait and see if the airline cancels or offer a waiver, because if you proactively cancel without any waivers or free refund policy in place, you’ll probably be out of all that money entirely.

Some airlines are issuing free changes or cancellations for flights via China and other areas of Asia, while others have none whatsoever, or don’t have any for travel outside of China. Check with your airline, keep checking and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and ask if there’s anything they can do, even if it’s not officially policy.

In other words, if you’re worried about travel to South Korea, but  airline isn’t offering anything in the way of cancellations, date changes or refunds at the moment,  – you’re technically in limbo, minus any travel insurance options. If the flight is going and there isn’t a specific government advisory, it’s up to the airline to make things right – and many are playing hardball.

Here’s What You Need To Know For EU Coronavirus Flights

If you’re flying on an EU airline or there are definitive things an airline must do for you, including putting you on another airline to reach your final destination, if they cancel or change a part of your trip.

Each airline has its own policy for what they’ll voluntarily offer (check with yours) but legally, every airline in the EU or operating flights from the EU must offer one of the following if your flight is cancelled. Lufthansa, British Airways, EasyJet and others are under scrutiny this week for inflexible policies toward travel to Italy and China.

British Airways was previously offering full refunds on any China flights for travel through to June 1st, but is now only offering flight credit if your flight isn’t cancelled. That’s appalling, but then Lufthansa is worse. Lufthansa doesn’t have any refund or waiver policy in place for Hong Kong.

If your flight is cancelled or official government advice is not to travel to a destination, you’re officially due…

  • A full refund; or…
  • A free replacement flight to your final destination, even if it’s with a different airline (This is useful if another airline has chosen to still operate to the final destination). 
  • A free replacement flight at a later date, subject to availability of seats (This means you can choose any future date to fly again, perhaps once the travel restrictions have been lifted).

If you were transiting via Asia to somewhere like the Pacific or beyond from the EU, or on an EU airline and your airline cancels part of the trip, they’re still obligated to get you to final destination.

In other words, if you had a British Airways ticket to Sydney via Singapore, but they cancel your London to Singapore flight, they must legally put you on something like Qatar Airways via Doha, at absolutely no expense to you.

Who Do You Contact About Refunds Or Cancellations?

If you’re talking about EU flights, contact the airline directly. They may try to put you off to whoever you booked with, but they’re incorrect. It’s between you and the airline, and they must then take it up with their travel agency partners at a later date – it’s not your problem.

For US passengers, or from other parts of the world, start with the company with whom you booked the ticket, unless your airline is specifically offering free changes, refunds or re-routings. If they are, contact the airline directly.

Thanks to Bott & Co for the legal clarifications.

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