Which? and leading travel businesses have written to the prime minister, urging him to show he is on the side of British holidaymakers by giving the aviation regulator, the CAA, powers to fine airlines for unlawful behaviour in the King’s Speech this autumn.
In a letter to Number 10 co-signed by leading travel businesses including The Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO), loveholidays, On The Beach and Thomas Cook. Which? is calling for action to bring an end to the annual ordeal faced by holidaymakers, who find themselves abandoned and left out of pocket as airlines routinely ignore their legal obligations, knowing they will never face serious consequences.
From the ongoing impact of strike action and delays and cancellations of thousands of flights, through to the devastating effects of fires on Rhodes and other Greek islands, thousands of travellers this summer are counting the financial and emotional costs of disruption at a time when household budgets are already stretched to breaking point.
Flight delays have become endemic, with new figures from the Civil Aviation Authority this week showing almost a third (32%) of flights departing from UK airports were delayed or cancelled in the first five months of this year. In contrast, this figure stood between 22 and 25 per cent in the years leading up to the pandemic*.
While airlines are not always directly responsible for disruption, they nonetheless have a number of legal responsibilities to their customers which are frequently ignored. These include ensuring passengers are quickly rerouted (with a rival carrier if necessary) or refunded when their flight is cancelled and providing assistance such as adequate accommodation or meals depending on the length of the delay for example.
Both the Department for Transport and an independent review of the CAA recently made recommendations for the regulator to be given stronger enforcement powers, but Number 10 have so far failed to give any indication of when legislation will be brought forward. The 2022 Queen’s Speech promised a wide-ranging Transport Bill which never materialised. Until legislation is in place, airlines can continue to play fast and loose with travellers’ rights knowing their regulator can only rely on lengthy court proceedings to enforce the law, while travellers and other companies in the supply chain, such as package holiday operators, are left counting the costs.
Other countries meanwhile have taken stringent action against airlines found to be breaking the law. Most recently, the US issued a $1.1 million fine to flag carrier British Airways for failing to refund passengers during the pandemic. In the UK, the aviation regulator is powerless to act similarly.
In the consumer champion’s recent airline survey, almost half (45%) of those who suffered a delay reported there not being airline staff available to assist them. Where staff were available, almost a fifth of respondents (19%) felt that they were not helpful.
Which? has since heard from countless travellers this year who feel let down by their airlines, or suffered poor customer service, with over a thousand consumers submitting evidence to an independent review of the CAA.
While the difficulties experienced by travellers this summer highlight the pressing need for more effective regulation, the impact has been felt by consumers and businesses alike for years.
Last month, the Civil Aviation Authority announced it would finally be taking enforcement action against Wizz Air, after months of reports that passengers were having difficulty obtaining refunds and compensation. The CAA previously raised concerns about the airline in December 2022, and months later, Which? found Wizz Air has 1,601 ‘outstanding’ CCJs worth almost £2.2 million against it.
Although the CAA is now taking enforcement action, the regulator is reliant on undertakings from Wizz Air to comply. If they do not, the CAA’s only recourse is costly and time consuming court action, meaning its ability to act as an effective enforcer is severely limited. Which? believes the Prime Minister must act now to give the CAA stronger powers – including the ability to fine airlines directly – and is calling on this legislation to be set out in the King’s Speech later this year.
Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:
“Thousands of passengers have been subjected to unfair and in some cases unlawful treatment by airlines – and enough is enough.
“We’re calling on the PM to show he is on the side of holidaymakers by giving the aviation regulator the power to issue substantial fines to airlines when they flout the law.”
Notes to editors:
A copy of the joint letter and a full list of signatories can be found below:
Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP
10 Downing St
Dear Prime Minister,
As a coalition of consumer advocates and travel companies, we urge you to show your support for British holidaymakers affected by this summer’s air travel disruption by agreeing to strengthen the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) enforcement powers through this autumn’s King’s Speech.
This summer has seen the all too familiar sight of holidaymakers’ plans ruined by air travel disruption; this time through UK and European strike action, thousands of summer flight cancellations, and the terrible environmental impact of wildfires. While some of these issues are outside of airlines’ control, they are routinely failing what’s in their control: to uphold their customers’ legal rights to rerouting and refunds, and provide clear and timely passenger information.
Thousands of UK citizens have again been left at risk of being stranded or out of pocket at a time when household finances are already squeezed. Which? is aware of numerous holidaymakers who, without clear information from their airline, have had to make snap, costly decisions – in some cases dipping into their savings and overdrafts, as well as affecting their mental wellbeing.
Every year we’re seeing disruption, and every year newspapers and news broadcasts are full of unacceptable images of holidaymakers struggling to navigate airline customer services who won’t give them what’s due. Yet the airlines’ regulator, the CAA, is without the powers to hold them properly to account. This has emboldened firms to prioritise commercial interests over those of their customers. Notwithstanding airlines’ response to recent events, as of March of this year Which? found firms owed £4.5 million in outstanding County Court Judgement (CCJs) payments to passengers. This is an indictment of a failed regulatory system in which consumers have nowhere to turn but the courts to recover the compensation to which they’re legally entitled.
Businesses have been impacted too. Package holiday providers and third party businesses responsible for flight bookings have struggled to recoup millions of pounds owed to them by airlines during periods of disruption – harming the competitiveness of a key part of our economy. There’s a significant imbalance between the legal obligations of airlines for flight only bookings when compared to package holiday providers, with the latter exposed to unnecessary financial risk if airlines fail to comply with the law. With the CAA unable to take action, both consumers and businesses lose out.
This contrasts starkly to the US where the Government has taken stringent action to hold to account companies suspected of mistreating customers, with British Airways recently fined $1.1 million for failing to refund passengers during the pandemic. If you, as Prime Minister, intervened on behalf of passengers by enabling the regulator to take action, it would send a strong message to airlines that their behaviour is unacceptable and put enforcement of UK passenger rights on a par with countries elsewhere.
The Department for Transport (DfT) has recognised the plight of UK travellers and we strongly welcomed its recent commitment to strengthening the regulator’s enforcement powers in its response to its Aviation Consumer Reform Consultation. However, the Government has yet to set out a timetable for delivering this reform. With limited time in the Parliamentary calendar before the next General Election, it is key the Government demonstrates to airlines and passengers that this is not an empty promise.
We urge you to take immediate and decisive action on behalf of British holidaymakers to ensure the rights of passengers are upheld and not undermined, by including a Bill that will strengthen the regulator’s enforcement powers in the upcoming King’s Speech.
Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy and Chief Economist, Which?
Martyn Sumners, Executive Director, AITO
Michael Edwards, Managing Director, Explore
Donat Rétif, Chief Executive Officer, loveholidays
Michael Higgins, Managing Director – Solicitor, Lovetts Solicitors
Kirsteen Vickerstaff, General Counsel and Company Secretary, On the Beach
Kevin O’Regan, Managing Director, RWH Travel Limited
Phil Hullah, Chief Executive Officer, Riviera Travel
Julia Lo Bue-Said, Chief Executive Officer, The Advantage Travel Partnership
Alan French, Chief Executive Officer, Thomas Cook
Craig Ashford, Chief Commercial Officer, TravelUp Group
– Flight delay research from FT analysis of CAA figures: https://www.ft.com/content/71f08447-cb4b-4340-ae63-29092b3e7ddf
– Which? Airline survey: In October 2022, Which? surveyed 8,046 adults about their experiences of flying in the previous two years (October 2020 – October 2022.). Fieldwork was carried out online with the Which? Connect panel and members of the public.
WizzAir previously issued the following statement in response to CAA enforcement action:
“Last summer, like all airlines in Europe, Wizz Air faced unprecedented operating challenges, driven mostly by the external environment, including ATC (air traffic control) disruptions, airport constraints and staff shortages across the whole supply chain. As a result, we were unable to meet our own high standards of service.Flights were too often late or cancelled, disruption management overwhelmed our internal and external resources, and claims took too long to process and pay. We have learned from this experience and have taken significant steps to make our operation more robust and customer-centric.”
Which? campaign to Transform Travel
– Which? is currently campaigning to Transform Travel, and at the time of writing, over 44,000 people have signed the consumer champion’s petition demanding urgent action. Please find a link to view it here.
– More than 1,100 Which? Travel campaign supporters also submitted evidence of their mistreatment by airlines to an independent review of the CAA, the results of which were recently published.The review made recommendations for the CAA to receive fining powers. The DfT also set recommendations for fining powers in its response to its aviation consumer policy reform consultation.
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, which would replace current protections under EU law EC261, must be dropped.
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.
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