Dover, Europe's busiest port, has lost a third of its capacity, as ITV News Business Editor Joel Hills reports
P&O Ferries has been refusing to issue refunds to customers who cancel their bookings, breaking a pledge made on its website.
The company is struggling to restart its ferry service almost three weeks after sacking 800 crew to save money.
With Easter approaching, seven of P&O’s eight ships have yet to pass full safety inspections and remain stuck in port.
On POferries.com, the company provides customers with sailing updates and makes the following reassurance: “Any customers booked to travel during this period of disruption who choose not to travel can have a full refund”.
The refund pledge on the P&O website
The problem is that many of P&O’s customers complain this isn’t true.
Julia Ferrari’s family were due to sail from Hull to Rotterdam on Friday 8th April. They plan to visit relatives in Germany who they haven’t seen for almost two and a half years, due to Covid restrictions.
Julia became concerned that she may not be able to sail with P&O and decided to make alternative travel arrangements. But her request for a refund from P&O was refused.
“I contacted them but apparently ‘customer choice’ means you only get a full refund if P&O cancel the ship,” Julia told ITV News.
“As a customer, I’m really angry about this. I’m obviously angry about how they treat their staff. But as a customer, the fact the website says you can have a refund if you want one and then you contact them and find out you can’t.”
'I'm really angry about this'
P&O has now cancelled Julia’s crossing and offered her a refund. She and her family will now travel out with DFDS instead, although the new booking cost her £40 more and she is still scheduled to return from Rotterdam with P&O on the 18th April.
We have spoken to several P&O customers who, like Julia, have been refused refunds.
Tom Stringer tried to cancel his booking to sail between Dover and Calais in June when he and his wife are planning to visit their son in Switzerland.
P&O will not return his money and sent him an email explaining why: “As we expect services to resume in the near future, refunds for dates that are not currently cancelled remain dependant on ticket type.”
It added: “I can confirm that your ticket is a saver ticket and therefore, as your ticket is non-refundable or transferable, and as we have not cancelled your ferry crossing, we would not be able to process a refund on this occasion”.
P&O had hoped to restart its ferry operations five days after firing its crew by hiring cheaper agency staff to replace them.
But services remain suspended between Larne and Cairnryan and between Dover and Calais - P&O’s busiest route by far.
Last Tuesday, at Port of Dover, Pride of Kent became the second P&O vessel to be detained by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency after failing a safety inspection.
Two days later, in a video meeting with staff, P&O’s chief executive played down the seriousness of the deficiencies identified by MCA surveyors.
P&O's chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite on the deficiencies of the Pride of Kent:
“There were 25 issues, 13 of which were physical, technical issues, which ranged from bins being more full than they should be, which is a fire-hazard, to water-tight door indicator-light not working. All legitimate points, all totally fixable,” said Peter Hebblethwaite.
He added: “There were nine paperwork errors, documentation wasn’t fully completed, and there were two crew issues and there was one other issue - which actually was that because of the findings there’s an additional check that it required.”
P&O has another problem at Port of Dover.
ITV News can reveal that, on the same day that MCA inspectors detained Pride of Kent, crew on P&O’s Spirit of Britain accidentally broke one of the ships four engines.
A source told me that engineers “kept filling up the header tank on the Port Outer Main Engine with water and it leaked into the piston. They didn’t realise and when they turned [started] the engine they cracked the jacket and the piston blew-up.”
At the time of the accident, Spirit of Britain, the largest ship in P&O’s fleet, was mainly crewed by agency workers but it’s not clear if they were to blame for the damage.
“Whoever it was clearly didn’t know what they were doing,” the source added.
ITV News understands that P&O asked Hartman Marine, a local engineering company, to repair the damage to the MAN 4 stroke diesel engine.
Parts have been stripped from an engine on P&O’s Spirit of France, which is currently in a dry dock in Rotterdam, and sent to Dover for use in the repairs.
Spirit of France is not expected to re-enter service until May at the earliest.
Hartman Marine declined to comment.
P&O told ITV News: "This issue had nothing to do with the change in crewing model.”
Yesterday, P&O Ferries announced on its Twitter account that all passenger ferry services between Dover and Calais will be suspended this weekend.
DFDS is no longer willing to transfer P&O customers onto their ships so customers who were hoping to travel with P&O on the 8th, 9th and 10th April are being advised to “re-book directly with another operator”.
It’s Easter and up to 1,000 cars were expected to sail with P&O from Dover between Friday and Sunday.
P&O now acknowledges its refund promise is misleading, Joel Hills explains
Port of Dover will worry about another weekend of gridlock and chaos. Meanwhile P&O continues to lose £1 million a day, everyday that its fleet remains laid-up.
P&O said it hopes to get four of its ships sailing again next week.
A spokesperson said: "From this weekend, P&O Ferries are getting ready to resume services across a number of vital routes.
"P&O has been working closely with regulators to ensure our ships are safe to sail. P&O is looking forward to welcoming back vital services and we expect to have two of our vessels ready to sail on the Dover-Calais route by next week, subject to regulatory signoff, namely both the Pride of Kent and Spirit of Britain between Dover-Calais.
"P&O are also expecting to be able to sail both the European Causeway which runs between Larne and Cairnryan; and the Pride of Hull, which runs services between Hull and Rotterdam.
"For those customers still affected by wider disruption, we are providing refunds to all passengers booked to travel with us to whom we have not been able to provide alternative services. Customers can contact our customer service team by email or phone for a refund. Anyone who has had their trip disrupted with P&O will also receive a free trip to be used on a future journey with us, that can be taken later in the year.
"We thank our customers for their patience during this time and we apologise to those customers whose journeys have been cancelled and disrupted."
P&O Ferries has accepted that the refund pledge on its website is misleading and says it will be changed.
Customers cannot choose to have a refund. They will only receive money back if P&O cancels their crossing.