A dossier of more than 14,000 complaints from people struggling to obtain refunds for cancelled flights and holidays has been compiled by a consumer group.
Many people are suffering “serious financial and emotional distress” while trying to get their money back from firms such as Ryanair, easyJet and Virgin Atlantic during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Which?.
Under UK law, consumers should be refunded within seven days for cancelled flights and within 14 days for package holidays that cannot go ahead due to travel restrictions.
Which? said it has received more than 14,000 reports of travel firms not issuing payouts on time since May 22.
Analysis of 12,600 of these found that complainants are out of pocket by a total of £5.6 million, which is an average of £446 each.
They have collectively spent nearly six years trying to chase their refunds.
Which? said its dossier provides “a snapshot of the problem”, and cited travel industry estimates in April that up to £7 billion in payments made by UK customers could be affected.
The most reported airline was Ryanair, accounting for 44% of the complaints made.
This was followed by easyJet (14%) and Virgin Atlantic (7%).
Tui and Etihad customers spent the most time chasing their refunds, with 39% of people who complained about either firm giving up more than 10 hours.
All five airlines acknowledged there have been delays in refunding customers due to the volume of applications, but insisted they are issuing payouts.
Which? has passed the complaints to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which it urged to take “urgent enforcement action”.
Ryanair accused the consumer group of using a “baseless survey” to compile its figures, while easyJet said it is processing refunds within 28 days.
Which? found that some carriers have done a “significantly better job”, with customers of British Airways and Jet2.com more likely to receive their money on time.
Rory Boland, of Which? Travel, said: “These latest figures are a damning indictment of the behaviour of many airlines and holiday companies in recent weeks.
“With customers being told to either wait months for their money back or accept a voucher that may prove worthless if a company fails, it should come as a surprise to no-one that trust has plummeted so drastically.
“Any further delay risks permanent damage to trust in the travel industry.
“The regulator must come down strongly on any airlines found to be systemically denying or delaying refunds for cancelled flights and holidays, and the Government must urgently set out how it will support the industry and restore trust in the sector.”
CAA spokesman Andrew McConnell said: “In response to global travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, we are currently reviewing the refund policies and performance of airlines.
“We value the input we have received directly from consumers, as well as those that were sent to us via consumer organisations.
“We acknowledge the importance of this and will publish the findings of our review in due course.”