Which? calls for Civil Aviation Authority to get stronger powers, as four in 10 travellers say they lack confidence in airlines treating them fairly

In a survey of 1,000 adults who flew from a UK airport between January and October 2022, almost two in five (39%) reported that they had little confidence that airlines would treat them fairly if things were to go wrong in future.

Which? is calling on the government to urgently follow through on proposals to equip the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) with the necessary powers to clamp down on airlines when they flout the law. New research by the consumer champion found a significant proportion of travellers reporting a lack of confidence that airlines would treat them fairly and uphold their legal rights to assistance or compensation in the event of delays or cancellations.

Which? found that travellers who suffered a delay with their most recent flight were the most likely to express doubt that their airline would treat them fairly in future, with nearly half (49%) saying that they lacked confidence, compared with four in 10 (39%) travellers overall.

Those who didn’t book their flight as part of a package holiday were more likely to lack confidence in airline treatment (45%) compared to those who booked a package holiday (31%).

Of the 149 people who suffered a cancellation or a delay of more than two hours, 35 believed airlines did not meet the requirements for cancellation or delays, such as informing them of their rights to assistance.

The consumer champion is concerned that airlines’ repeated failures to make travellers aware of their consumer rights indicates a systemic problem in the travel sector, which the CAA currently has limited powers to correct. 

This is particularly concerning given the high numbers of people who were impacted by delays and cancellations last year, with four in 10 (41%) of those surveyed reporting an issue with their most recent flight such as a delay, cancellation, or loss of luggage. Delays were the most prevalent issue, with almost three quarters (73%) of those who suffered a problem reporting that they were delayed, and nearly a third of those (30%) waited for over two hours in total.

Even when consumers are aware of their rights to assistance or compensation, they can still have a battle on their hands to obtain it. Rachel Cannon* and her family were stranded in Menorca for five days after her Easyjet flight home to Bristol was cancelled at short notice last summer. After submitting a compensation claim, easyJet initially refused to pay out, citing extraordinary circumstances as the cause of the cancellation. Only after taking her claim to an independent adjudicator did the airline finally agree to pay Rachel and her family £880 as a “goodwill gesture”. Even then, the money wasn’t forthcoming – it took pursuing court action, and the intervention of Which? Travel, before Rachel finally received the money in her account, a full three and a half months after submitting the original claim.

Which? has heard from hundreds of travellers with similar stories, which are likely to be just a fraction of the wider picture. The consumer champion is calling on the government to act now to provide consumers with an aviation regulator with teeth that can properly hold airlines to account when they fail to meet their legal obligations, and so begin restoring confidence in a sector which has been so severely knocked by years of disruption and poor customer service.

The Transport Secretary should also scrap plans to weaken compensation rights for delayed domestic flights, a proposal which could embolden airlines to treat travellers poorly, and further damage already shaky consumer confidence.

With the long-promised Transport Bill now scrapped from this Parliamentary Session, an independent review of the CAA still ongoing, and no decision forthcoming on consultation proposals made in early 2022, the Transport Secretary must urgently make clear how and when he will make these much needed powers a reality.

Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:

“After the unacceptable delays and disruption experienced by travellers last year, it is concerning, though perhaps unsurprising, to find that almost two-fifths of travellers express a lack of confidence that they’ll receive fair treatment from their airlines should things go awry in future.

“The Transport Secretary must urgently set out plans to equip the aviation regulator with greater enforcement powers so it can properly hold airlines to account when they mistreat passengers and neglect their legal responsibilities. Without decisive action, some airlines will continue to be emboldened to fail passengers, as we’ve seen repeatedly in the last few years.”

Notes to editors

  • Between 11th-21st October 2022, Opinium, on behalf of Which?, conducted an online survey of 1,000 adults living in the UK who flew between January and October 2022 from a UK airport. 
  • *The case study Rachel Cannon has been published under a pseudonym. Which? Travel contacted easyJet to ask why she hadn’t been paid. It said that there was a problem with her bank details though she’s shown us evidence that they were correct. EasyJet said: ‘We will always pay compensation when it is due, and where a passenger submits a claim for compensation, our team review this and respond based on the circumstances of the individual case.’ 
  • 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. Please find a link to view it 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, which would replace current protections under EU law EU261, must be dropped.

About Which?

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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