A dozen EU states will today call on Brussels to temporarily suspend a European law granting refunds for cancelled flights, Euronews understands.
France and the Netherlands will spearhead the push, which is expected to come during a meeting of European transport ministers.
The other countries behind the request are Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Malta, Poland and Portugal.
It comes amid anger from passengers who had their flights cancelled because of the coronavirus lockdowns but were only offered vouchers in compensation.
European regulations say passengers must be offered a refund if a flight is cancelled.
But there is now a push to get this EU law suspended temporarily to give struggling airlines vital breathing space.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on international transport, including air travel,” the 12 EU countries said in a joint statement (PDF download).
“An immense number of flights have been cancelled. Air carriers are no longer generating passenger business, yet they continue to incur high running costs.
“Because of this, Regulation EC (No) 261/2004 and its obligation to reimburse cancelled tickets in cash, if the passenger so decides, places airlines in a difficult situation where they are facing a serious cash flow challenge.
“When the wording of the regulation was conceived, the current global crisis and its impact on air travel could not have been foreseen. The goal shared by the European Union and its member states must now be to preserve the structure of the European air traffic market beyond the current crisis, while considering the interests and necessary protection of passengers.”
But the EU’s transport commissioner, Adina Valean, told Euronews on Tuesday that she thought such a move was a bad idea.
“It’s not an option for me,” she said. “I don’t think that this is the right path. I think companies have to put their energy and thinking into making the vouchers more attractive if they want to use mainly this instrument, but allow passengers to exercise their right to be reimbursed.”
Air France-KLM is among the companies not offering refunds to passengers – despite receiving €11 billion in aid from the French and Dutch governments. KLM told Euronews that current regulations were not designed to deal with the exceptional circumstances of a pandemic.
“Regulations have been developed in anticipation of localized and short term disruptions,” it said in a statement.
“No text envisaged the ban and travel restrictions that have begun in recent weeks. KLM believes that the issuance of a refundable voucher constitutes a fair solution and a reasonable balance between the protection of their passengers and the operational realities that every airline has to face.”
But European consumer rights organisation, BEUC, said travellers should not be the ones to bail out the airline industry.
“COVID-19 is putting consumers under an enormous financial strain,” said BEUC director general Monique Goyens.
“Their right to reimbursement for cancelled travel is more important than ever.
“However, we’ve seen countless examples of airlines and travel companies undermining consumers’ rights by trying to push people to accept vouchers.
“Moreover, consumers should not be forced by governments to pick up the bill to bail out the travel industry.
“We need solutions that protect both the travel industry and consumer rights, without which consumer confidence in the travel industry could be permanently damaged”.