Abta is hopeful that "vital" changes to the Package Travel Regulations (PTRs) to ease the refund burden on the travel sector could be announced when parliament returns on Tuesday (21 April).
The association’s head of public affairs, Luke Petherbridge, told TTG that if the matter was brought before ministers swiftly, a new temporary "refund credit note" (RCN) regime – championed by Abta – could be formalised "within weeks".
It comes amid national press reports suggesting the government may, at last, be ready to offer the sector additional financial support, and to guarantee Atol-protected credit notes, as per Abta’s calls.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, transport secretary Grant Shapps – who was last week lambasted by the travel sector for what Abta described as a "thoughtless" remark about not rushing to book a summer holiday – and business secretary Alok Sharma are in the process of finalising a deal for travel, with support from the CAA.
A "bespoke" package of measures for the travel sector has been rumoured since chancellor Rishi Sunak’s initial "coronavirus Budget" on 11 March, and in light of the subsequent financial support measures announced since the coronavirus crisis deepened, albeit without clarity on the scale and breadth of the measures – with airlines in particular both seeking respite.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, responding to a letter from constituent Gemma Antrobus, owner of Haslemere Travel, earlier this month hinted at a "tailored support package" for travel, with Shapps taking the lead.
"Due to the complexity of the sector, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t seem to be appropriate and a more tailored support package is required," said Hunt in response to Antrobus’s letter, sent as part of Abta’s Save Future Travel campaign.
Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer last week accused the government of "dragging its feet" on the refund crisis facing travel, with several European nationals already having amended their interpretations of the EU Package Travel Directive to allow refunds to be delayed, while a leading industry consultant warned it may take company failures to alert ministers to the scale and urgency of the issue.
A statement provided to TTG last week by the government’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis), the department responsible for the Package Travel Regulations, suggested movement on the issue was unlikely.
A leading travel lawyer, meanwhile, told TTG they felt that given the delay in Beis acting to date, they were doubtful the department would step in.
Irrespective of government action, Petherbridge confirmed RCN validity – as set out by its own guidance on the arrangements – was now starting to extend beyond the current 31 July cut-off as more travel businesses renew their bonding arrangements, although Petherbridge warned companies they must not offer customers RCNs with validity beyond their own protection arrangements.
"As we move through the March bonding renewals, which were delayed to end of this month, the next validity period for the majority of businesses would become March 31 2021," said Petherbridge.
"As such, that is the regulatory window Abta is seeking.
"We’re having regular contact and discussions with the CAA, and have shared with them our views on how the RCN meets their own existing rules under the Air Travel Trust Fund (Atol scheme). We would hope the government would announce the changes to PTRs when parliament returns next week, and these could then be in place within weeks.
"However, RCNs are already being issued, and Abta’s view is that consumer protection is carried forward under exiting rules. The regulatory change is vital, though, to properly address chargebacks and Section 75 [claim] rules for credit cards."
Petherbridge added: "Ministers do appear to be listening, and many MPs have now also shown their support through the Save Future Travel campaign. We have explained to government the alternative is mass insolvencies, potentially hundreds of thousands of job losses, and a bill for the government of up to £4.5 billion.
"Several other European countries are acting, so there is clearly no reason why the UK cannot follow suit."
Travel Trade Consultancy director Matt Purser told TTG’s Business Support Live on Friday (17 April) the challenge may yet be convincing ministers that there is a problem at all. "My understanding is ministers are not quite getting it," said Purser.
"I think part of that may be, weirdly, because there have been no failures. They’re thinking, ’what’s the problem?’. The longer this goes on, the bigger the problem becomes, so there needs to be some clarity [around refunds]."
Tanzer’s comments, meanwhile, came as Abta revealed 24,000 letters had now been sent to MPs off the back of its Save Future Travel campaign, which has also gained the support of another 55 travel firms.
A Beis spokesperson said: “We will continue to engage with the travel sector and consumer advocacy bodies to assess the impact of cancellations made in light of the Covid-19 outbreak.”
They added the rules around package travel and other bookings remained in force "unchanged", and that firms were encouraged to support holidaymakers "as best possible".