Aito has called on Which? to retract a new "red list" of package holiday providers based on their Covid refund policies, branding it "misleading and incorrect".
The consumer champion on Wednesday (4 August) issued a warning to holidaymakers, advising them against booking with 20 travel firms "based on shortcomings with their booking terms and commitments to refunding customers in the event of coronavirus-related disruption".
However, 13 of the 20 red-listed companies – two-thirds – were given red ratings for an alleged "lack of transparency" after Which? said they failed to respond to "repeated requests for information" on their refund policies.
Aito chair Chris Rowles said following a period of unprecedented upheaval for travel firms, many of which haven’t been able to trade in a meaningful way for 17 months, the association expected better of the "so-called consumer champion" – and warned the list could cause "serious commercial damage" to some of its members.
“To have a seemingly well-respected publication, known for its efforts on behalf of consumers, declaiming specific tour operators as ’red-listed’ - meaning Which? recommends consumers don’t book holidays with them due to their refund policy if customers are unable to travel due to Covid – is hugely damaging to those businesses," said Rowles.
"Which? also states ’a lack of transparency’ can also be a reason for being put on the red list. Really? If a beleaguered tour operator with just a few staff working their socks off to respond to client queries (because it’s made other employees redundant due to lack of income) doesn’t respond to a four-page survey on Covid from Which?, then the consumer magazine can say, ’don’t book with this company’?
"This is nothing short of outrageous. We expect and demand Which? immediately retracts its current issue and press statements."
Which? assessed more than 80 of the UK’s package holiday providers’ refund policies based on six criteria:
Aito member Beachcomber Tours was one of those businesses red-listed for an alleged lack of transparency. In a statement, the Beachcomber said since April 2020, it had refunded all customers whose bookings were affected by the Covid crisis within 14 days of a refund request. Those wishing to move their holidays have been rebooked without additional fees, the operator added.
"We have not been approached by Which? for comment on these claims, which we believe have been made based solely on a lack of response to a Which? survey – which we are not legally required to participate in," said Beachcomber.
"The claims have not been based on guest and partner experience, which is the best showcase of our policies. Our track record shows we have honoured all customers with refunds or date moves, and we are only booking travel from 1 October 2021 in the hope customers will not need to cancel or move their future bookings.
"Within the travel trade, we have consistently been recognised as one of the most supportive operators, with staff on hand to look after existing bookings and ensure a speedy refund process, and we believe if Which? had approached our customers or partners they would have received a more accurate picture of how we have handled cancellations throughout this period."
British Airways Holidays, First Choice, Hays Travel, Jet2holidays, Trailfinders and Tui were among the firms rated green by Which?’s Holiday Checker.
Rory Boland, Which? Travel editor, said: "Travellers have been left millions of pounds out of pocket for disrupted travel plans over the course of the pandemic, so it’s vitally important that holidaymakers understand which holiday companies have the best flexible booking policies for Covid-19 related disruption.
"This includes holiday companies being clear and transparent on what is and isn’t covered by their policies, so it’s great to see that a number of companies who had previously chosen not to engage with us are now seeking to clarify their position on Covid-related disruption and refunds.
"Which? has gone to great lengths over the past year to contact every company featured in the Holiday Checker, including reaching out to member organisations including Aito for information, to provide travellers with clarity on who to book with.
"We can’t recommend any company that is not transparent with us about its policies, given it’s never been more important to know where you stand before booking a holiday."