The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an investigation in June into whether the two airlines broke consumer law.
It said customers who could not take flights should be offered full refunds, but the probe would take too long and be too expensive for the taxpayer to be justified.
The regulator previously warned the companies may have needed to issue refunds for flights that took place but were not allowed for non-essential travel.
During the pandemic BA offered vouchers or rebookings, while Ryanair provided the option to rebook on flights that operated but should only have been used for essential travel, the CMA added.
BA said it offered refunds for all flights that were cancelled.
The decision has come under fire from consumer groups, with Rory Boland, Travel Editor of Which?, branding it ‘hugely unfair’ for passengers that have been ‘left to shoulder the bill’ for flights they ‘couldn’t legally take’.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an investigation in June into whether Ryanair (file photo of planes above) and British Airways broke consumer law by failing to offer refunds for flights customers were unable to take during lockdown
Legally, customers are entitled to a cash refund within 14 days if flights are cancelled but this does not clearly cover when flights take place but customers are legally prohibited from travelling.
The CMA said that after initial analysis it had concluded the law ‘does not provide passengers with a sufficiently clear right to a refund in these unusual circumstances to justify continuing with the case’.
The regulator called for the law to be clarified to help passengers secure refunds.
Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, said: ‘We strongly believe people who are legally prevented from taking flights due to lockdown laws should be offered a full refund and we launched this investigation in the hope that we would be able to secure a positive outcome for consumers.
‘However, after considering the relevant law and gathering evidence in our investigation, we have concluded that the length of time that would be required to take this case through the courts, and the uncertain outcome, can no longer justify the further expense of public money.
‘Given the importance of this to many passengers who have unfairly lost out, we hope that the law in this area will be clarified.’
Rory Boland, Which?’s Mr Boland Travel Editor, told MailOnline:’It’s disappointing that the CMA has closed this investigation into airline refunds.
‘It’s hugely unfair that passengers have been left to shoulder the bill for following the law and protecting public health by staying home, while British Airways and Ryanair have been allowed to hold onto their cash for flights people couldn’t legally take.
‘Time and time again regulators have not taken action against airlines because the powers they have are too weak and the time taken to conclude a court case is too long.
‘It’s clear that current regulation is not working and consumers are being let down by gaps and inconsistencies in flight and holiday rules.’
Legally, customers are entitled to a cash refund within 14 days if flights are cancelled but this does not clearly cover when flights take place but customers are legally prohibited from travelling (file photo)
He added: ‘The government must urgently set out how it plans to review travel regulations and strengthen consumer protections.
‘Plans to give the CAA greater powers to tackle the consistent lawbreaking we saw on refunds from some airlines can’t come soon enough.
‘These must be sufficiently tough, and give the ability to fine airlines directly for past behaviour to ensure they won’t step out of line again.’
A spokeswoman for Ryanair said: ‘Ryanair welcomes the CMA’s decision to close its investigation.
‘We operated a limited schedule during UK lockdowns for customers who travelled for essential reasons.
‘Passengers had the option to change their bookings without paying the flight change fee and many availed of this option.’
In a statement, a spokesman for BA said: ‘During this unprecedented crisis we have acted lawfully at all times, issuing nearly four million refunds and offering highly flexible booking policies enabling millions of our customers to change their travel dates or destinations.
‘We’re grateful for their support at a time when we’ve been navigating dynamic and fast-changing travel restrictions to maintain a limited schedule that ensured vital air connections for travellers and cargo throughout the pandemic.’