Which? is calling for urgent action from government and regulators after an investigation by the consumer champion found airlines have run up millions of pounds in County Court Judgments (CCJs) after failing to pay passenger expenses and refunds.
Which? found CCJs collectively worth more than £4.5 million have piled up against airlines including EasyJet, Ryanair, Tui and Wizz Air, according to official records. Wizz Air accounts for almost half the total amount, despite carrying fewer passengers than some of its rivals.
Which? believes the shocking scale of these figures highlights how the enforcement of air passenger protections is fundamentally flawed – with airlines empowered to ignore their legal obligations due to weak regulation and a dysfunctional dispute resolution system failing to help travellers enforce their rights. The government has outlined plans to enhance the Civil Aviation Authority’s powers, but much-needed aviation reforms have been delayed repeatedly.
Wizz Air has 1,601 ‘outstanding’ CCJs worth almost £2.2 million, according to Registry Trust, which maintains the official statutory register of judgments, orders, and fines for England & Wales on behalf of the Ministry of Justice.
The register also shows that both EasyJet and Ryanair have high numbers of ‘outstanding’ judgments. EasyJet has 884, amounting to £611,436 and Ryanair has 840 worth £549,892. Tui has fewer, at, 313, but they are worth almost £1.3 million. Easyjet told Which? it now has no known unpaid CCJs and that the register has not been updated to reflect its current position. Trust Online, the official register of court judgments, told Which? that: ‘Even when a judgment is paid, the judgment will continue to show as ‘unsatisfied’ until the court records are updated.’ It said defendants – airlines in this case – are responsible for providing updates about the payment status of CCJs.
Which? Recommended Provider Jet2 has four ‘outstanding’ judgments amounting to £1,434. Meanwhile, BA has 82 totalling £96,042.
Which? has spoken to Wizz Air customers who had flights cancelled by the airline, but struggled to claim a refund. Russell Quirk’s flight to Portugal for his family was cancelled by Wizz Air without explanation three hours before they were due to take off.
Wizz Air had a legal obligation to reroute him as soon as possible, but instead suggested that he book himself on to a new flight and promised to refund him. He paid for a last-minute BA flight for his family of five that cost £2,500 – and incurred other out of pocket expenses as a result of the change. Although Wizz Air refunded the original flight – after several weeks of chasing – it failed to reimburse his expenses.
The airline didn’t respond to the case he brought through the small claims court. Mr Quirk was therefore awarded a judgment by default, but still did not get his money. In October 2022 he had to instruct court bailiffs. The bailiffs visited Wizz Air at Luton Airport and finally forced the airline to pay him more than £4,500, including costs, in December – seven months after his original flight.
Which? also heard from a WizzAir passenger who was failed by a voluntary dispute resolution scheme for air passengers when he tried to escalate a claim for a cancelled flight. Mattia Zenere had a flight booked with Wizz Air in June 2022 but was told that his flight had been cancelled when he arrived at the gate. He received no further confirmation of the cancellation, or explanation of why it was cancelled from WizzAir, and was forced to book a night in a hotel and a new flight himself from another airport, costing almost £800.
Wizz Air failed to refund him or pay his expenses, so he escalated his claim to AviationADR, which initially ruled that he should get a refund for the flight, but not his expenses. When he queried this it sent him a second ‘final determination’ that he should get expenses but not a refund. When he also queried this it sent him a third ‘final determination’ that he was entitled to nothing – as the flight had never officially been cancelled. However, Which? has seen an email from Wizz Air to another passenger, booked on the same flight, saying that it was cancelled and confirming a refund.
AviationADR ultimately closed Mr Zenere’s case and stopped responding to his emails. As a result, he says he regrets not going straight to court. Wizz Air has since said it is re-investigating Mr Zenere’s case, after Which? sent it evidence that other passengers were told that the flight was cancelled.
Which? believes the CAA must take a tougher stance with airlines that fail to pay passengers the money they are owed and make clear that it will use all the powers it currently has at its disposal, including its economic regulation powers. Particularly in the case of Wizz Air, which has previously been warned by the CAA over its record as the worst airline for complaints and its large number of unpaid CCJs, the regulator should consider carrying out a formal review to establish whether the requirements of its licence to operate in the UK have been breached. Ultimately, the CAA has the power to suspend or revoke an airline’s licence.
The CAA must also be more transparent with the data it holds for airlines and be more effective at seeking information – making it publicly available and naming and shaming the poorest performers.
To avoid a repeat of these industry-wide breaches of consumer law in the future, Which? is also calling for the government to prioritise giving the CAA the powers and resources it needs to directly fine airlines and hold them accountable to ensure they comply with the law.
The failing alternative dispute resolution (ADR) system must be reformed by mandating membership to all airlines operating in the UK and by establishing a single statutory-backed ombudsman in this sector. Currently, multiple industry schemes compete for airline contracts, creating incentives for them to favour the airline rather than the consumer.
Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:
“The scale of court judgments piling up against major airlines is a result of a system where the odds are stacked against passengers and airlines feel empowered to routinely ignore their legal obligations to pay out refunds and compensation.
“The CAA must get tough with airlines and make clear that it will consider using all the powers at its disposal – which may include reviewing the licences of the worst offenders if appropriate.
“To avoid a repeat of this mess in future, the government must also prioritise reforms that put passengers first, which means giving the regulator powers and resources to require information from airlines as to their compliance with the law and to directly fine rogue operators that do not comply.”
Notes to editors:
Table of ‘outstanding’ CCJs and money owed:
|‘Outstanding’ county court judgments
|Member of ADR
|Yes – AADR
|Yes – AADR
|Yes – AADR
|Yes – AADR
|Yes – CEDR
Figures are for county court judgments that are still listed as ‘outstanding’ – ie. there is not yet any record of them having been paid – on Registry Trust – the official register of judgments.
- There are currently two UK-based ADR schemes for the aviation industry, AviationADR and CEDR. AviationADR administers complaints for WizzAir, EasyJet, Ryanair and Tui. The uphold rates in favour of passengers at AviationADR have dropped in recent years. In 2019 AviationADR ruled in favour of the consumer 61% of the time, but in 2020 the uphold rate fell to 38%, in 2021 just 24% and in 2022 it was 33%.
- Jet2 is a Which? Recommended Provider and is not a member of an ADR scheme. BA is a member of CEDR.
CAA engagement with Wizz Air:
- In December 2022 the CAA raised ‘significant concerns’ with Wizz Air over high volumes of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) complaints and delays in paying passengers what they are owed. According to CAA data, Wizz Air ranked as the worst airline for complaints escalated to either ADR schemes or the regulator’s in-house complaints team in the third quarter of 2022, with 811 complaints per million passengers. Read more on the CAA website here.
The CAA stated at the time that “Wizz Air has acknowledged and expressed regret over these problems and has committed to the Civil Aviation Authority that it will clear the backlogs of claims and outstanding ADR payments by Christmas”. Which? expects the CAA to be more transparent about its enforcement activities and improve the reporting of undertakings and the monitoring of business commitments, in the same way that other regulators do.
- Which? has recently raised its concerns with the regulator about Wizz Air – and low uphold rates in ADR – but no meaningful enforcement action has been taken so far.
- Which?’s policy report, ‘Final boarding call: Which? vision for consumer reforms in the aviation and package holiday sectors’ contains more information on the CAA and ADR reform. Please see pages 23 and 30.
Which?’s Transform Travel Campaign
- Which? is currently campaigning to Transform Travel, and at the time of writing, over 43,000 people have signed the consumer champion’s petition to the Secretary of State for Transport demanding urgent action and over 1,100 campaign supporters have submitted evidence to the ongoing review of the CAA. Please find a link to view the petition here.
- You can find Which?’s submission to the Department for Transport’s call for evidence on the effectiveness and efficiency of the CAA here.
- The consumer champion is calling for:
Enforcement – The CAA should be doing more by holding airlines to account proactively. It also needs direct powers to monitor and fine airlines when they flout the rules
Resolution – We need a dispute resolution system that is mandatory for all airlines flying to and from the UK so travellers don’t have to go to the small claims court to enforce their rights
Compensation – We need to protect passengers’ rights to redress when airlines are at fault for delays and cancellations. Proposals to slash pay-outs for domestic flights must be dropped.
Right of replies:
A spokesperson for Wizz Air said:
Regarding payment of CCJs:
“We pride ourselves on providing affordable, exciting travel opportunities and great service. We are sorry that, because of an unprecedented level of disruption due to the pandemic, we fell short of these expectations for some customers. We have learnt a lot from this challenging period and we are putting measures in place to ensure we are better prepared, including more customer services resources and revised processes.
“Since December, we have settled more than 400 CCJs. Regrettably there are outstanding cases that we are working to resolve as quickly as possible. In most cases, this is because we did not receive judgments from the courts due to problems receiving post, leaving us without the necessary information to settle cases. Online registers do not provide us with the information required to settle a case. We must, therefore, write to individual courts to apply for information about each case when we are made aware of it, and then wait to receive that information. This all makes for a complicated and time-consuming process.
“We are taking this matter extremely seriously, doing all we can to fix these issues and settle all outstanding cases as quickly as possible. Customers can contact us directly using our website or app to provide information about an outstanding judgment.”
Regarding public records:
“Third party online records are not up to date. We are currently seeking to have these records updated to reflect the progress we have made. Although the priority for our teams is settling customers’ cases.”
Regarding Mr Zenere’s case:
“We are sorry that Mr Zenere’s flight was delayed and regret the inconvenience this caused him. We participated willingly in the independent AviationADR process initiated by Mr Zenere and run by the regulator, and will abide with its decision.”
Easyjet: “Our legal department has confirmed that easyJet currently has no known unpaid county court judgments.”
Aviation ADR: “We acknowledge that Mr Zenere has provided correspondence from another passenger who received a refund of a cancelled flight, however, as there is no flight information on this correspondence that links that situation with Mr Zenere’s flight, we are afraid that this could not be taken into consideration.
“Please be assured that we acknowledge that Mr Zenere’s experience with us has not been a positive one and we do apologise for that. This is certainly not how we want anyone to feel having used our service. However, we are satisfied that the decision reached in the Determination issued on 03 March 2023, is the correct outcome of this claim.
“We can confirm that we have had an increase in claims against Wizz Air and this has caused some delays to Determinations being issued on some claims. However, we have increased our resources to enable us to handle these claims efficiently.”
Ryanair: Did not respond to a request for comment
Tui Airways: Did not respond to a request for comment
British Airways: Did not respond to a request for comment
Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.
The information in this press release is for editorial use by journalists and media outlets only. Any business seeking to reproduce information in this release should contact the Which? Endorsement Scheme team at firstname.lastname@example.org.