A new investigation by Which? reveals airlines are potentially breaking the law with unfair and misleading terms and conditions, as the consumer champion calls for a major overhaul of travel sector rules to ensure operators are held to account when they treat passengers badly.
In a new report, Which? sets out areas where it believes some airlines are routinely ignoring consumer rights law, following months of chaotic conditions at UK airports, thousands of flight cancellations and brazen rule-breaking by some airlines.
The consumer champion is calling for significant reforms, including a code of conduct for airlines and new, stronger powers for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), so it can hit operators with heavy fines when they flout the rules.
Which? examined seven major airlines’ Ts&Cs and uncovered examples of carriers “blacklisting” passengers, charging extortionate fees, making misleading claims about compensation and riding roughshod over consumer rights.
Ryanair’s terms state that it might refuse to carry someone on the grounds that the passenger ‘owes us any money in respect of a previous flight owing to payment having been dishonoured, denied or recharged against us’. The airline confirmed to Which? that this term had applied to nearly 850 customers who it claimed had ‘unlawfully’ used debit or credit card chargeback claims to get a refund for flights – effectively blacklisting them. This term may have applied to customers who struggled to get a refund from Ryanair for flights they were not able to take legally due to Covid restrictions or lockdowns.
While Ryanair was the only airline Which? has heard of enforcing this rule against customers, Wizz Air’s Ts&Cs allow it to do the same thing.
Which? found instances of airlines making erroneous claims about passengers’ rights to compensation for flights cancelled at short notice. BA incorrectly tells customers it will compensate them in some circumstances if it ‘delays a flight by five hours or more’. But compensation rights are activated after three hours, not five.
TUI includes a term which gives the incorrect impression that when a flight is cancelled it is up to the airline to decide whether to reroute or refund customers – but the rules state that it is the passenger who decides which option they prefer.
Despite previous warnings from the CAA that excessive fees could be open to legal challenge, some airlines continue to charge a premium for simple admin services, such as ticket transfers, correcting names and checking in at the airport. Wizz Air lists 51 fees on its website, including up to €13 (£11.17) for ‘admin’ and €15 (£12.89) for booking through a call centre.
Which? commissioned legal experts to examine airline terms and conditions amid concerns that, even after a 2019 CAA review into the fairness, transparency and prominence of Ts&Cs, several issues would still be present and new ones might have arisen.
The findings show that airlines may feel empowered to ignore warnings from a regulator that lacks the powers it needs to hold them to account.
The chaotic start to the 2022 holiday season has only reinforced this fundamental failing of travel regulation, with some airlines seemingly ignoring their legal obligations to help passengers with rerouting and rebooking, while other holidaymakers have struggled to get refunds. Which? asked the CAA to investigate BA over potential rule-breaking in April and has received reports of similar issues from Easyjet passengers in recent weeks.
Which? welcomes proposals from the government for the CAA to get stronger powers. These must include powers to fine airlines directly when they break the rules and to provide clarity for passengers and the industry, the CAA should establish a consumer-focused code of conduct for airlines operating in the UK, with the objective of holding operators accountable for their behaviour.
The consumer champion is also calling on ministers to drop plans to weaken passenger compensation rights for UK domestic flights. Which? research found the plans could slash average payouts by £163 per passenger and remove an important deterrent against airlines cancelling or overbooking flights.
The government should also make it mandatory for airlines operating in the UK to sign up to the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) system and establish a single, statutory-backed mandatory ombudsman scheme in aviation to ensure travellers can enforce their rights without having to go to court.
Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:
“Consumer rights and laws are meaningless if they are not enforced. Our analysis shows some airlines are routinely ignoring their legal obligations and ripping off their customers, with little fear of facing any consequences.
“Passengers have suffered for too long due to a lack of accountability and weak enforcement of the rules. The immense disruption of recent weeks can be a watershed moment and used as a springboard to reform the industry for their benefit.
“The government must take action to restore consumer confidence in travel. That should start with a consumer-focused code of conduct all airlines must adhere to, and stronger powers for the CAA, including the ability to fine operators directly when they break the rules.”
Notes to editors
- In the report, Final boarding call: Which? vision for consumer reforms in the aviation and package holiday sectors, Which? makes 12 recommendations to improve the sector’s consumer protection regime. These include much stronger powers for the CAA, including the ability to fine airlines directly, a strict code of conduct for airlines, a single statutory-backed ombudsman for airlines and mandatory membership of ADR.
Right of replies
CAA: “We thank Which? for its continued engagement regarding contract terms and airlines. We will review its latest evidence thoroughly and will respond accordingly.
“We have regularly called for stronger consumer powers, including the ability to impose fines on airlines. This would allow us to take faster action when appropriate and bring our powers in line with other sectoral regulators.”
Ryanair: Ryanair denied that its terms and conditions mischaracterised passengers’ rights to compensation and said passengers could get more information on their rights by clicking on dedicated links within the terms. It also said it doesn’t charge large fees and that airlines have the commercial freedom to set fees as they see fit. In response to blacklisting, it said fewer than 850 passengers had “unlawfully” processed chargebacks via their credit card company, and that these passengers were required to settle their outstanding debt before being allowed to fly with Ryanair again.
Wizz Air: “Based on our 18 years of doing business in the UK, we are satisfied that our General Conditions of Carriage are fully compliant with all of the applicable laws and regulations set out by the UK Civil Aviation Authority.”
British Airways: “Our terms and conditions are easily accessible, written in plain English and are kept under review. We take unfounded and unsupported allegations very seriously, and we discourage Which? from making them. We always seek to meet our legal obligations and when a customer’s flight is cancelled or disrupted, we provide the relevant information to fully inform them of their rights.”
Tui: “The travel industry is heavily regulated and we therefore would be unable to operate unless we complied with the laws of England & Wales and the laws of other applicable jurisdictions. We review our conditions of carriage on a regular basis with a key focus on both the law and what is most important for our customers. Ongoing internal reviews of the language used in our terms and conditions are a part of this.”
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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