Which? is calling on the Prime Minister to urgently legislate to make fining powers for the CAA a reality, as the UK marks 20 years of no fines or other financial penalties being issued to airlines after action taken by the regulator.
The relative weakness of the UK’s enforcement mechanisms was brutally exposed this month, when the US fined British Airways $1.1 million for complaints about unpaid refunds during the pandemic. The US Transportation Department said it had received 1,200 complaints about BA from passengers about delays receiving refunds during the pandemic – likely a drop in the ocean compared to the number of British Airways customers in the UK who had a similar experience.
The lack of similar action from UK authorities has been an embarrassing indictment of weak passenger protections in this country. For too long, consumer protections have been difficult to enforce. The CAA was given the ability to apply to the courts for enforcement orders against airlines in June 2003 but Which? understands it has used this power just once against a major airline, in 2018. In that case, Ryanair escaped punishment following a three-year court battle after it agreed belatedly to pay passengers compensation they were owed for flights cancelled during a strike by pilots.
The scandal of delayed and unpaid refunds during the pandemic, followed by the chaos at UK airports as holidays returned to normal in 2022, have highlighted the regulatory failings that have provided an environment where some airlines can potentially break the law without fear of meaningful sanction.
CAA data shows that 24,178 complaints about airlines relating to EC261 compensation rules were made to the CAA and the UK’s two alternative dispute resolution (ADR) bodies for aviation in 2020.
Research by the consumer champion previously found that approximately 2.3 million people in the UK were left out of pocket for flights they could not take during the pandemic.
Which? also received a deluge of complaints about airlines that year – more than 14,000 in a six week period, of which 44 per cent were about Ryanair. The consumer champion sent a dossier to the CAA, which then requested an undertaking from airlines that they would begin to refund passengers properly. Beyond this undertaking, no further action for breaching passengers’ rights was taken.
Elsewhere, regulators clamped down. In 2021 Italian regulators fined Ryanair €4.2 million and easyJet €2.8 million for failure to pay prompt refunds during the pandemic. easyJet is appealing the fine.
Many other regulators, including those of Greece and Germany have also fined airlines that are found to be in breach of the EC261 regulation.
Last year, the aviation industry struggled to cope with a resurgent demand for travel, and thousands of people had their flights delayed or cancelled as a result of airlines’ and airports’ failure to prepare.
Figures published by the CAA show that up to and including Q3 last year, 18,741 complaints relating to EC261 were escalated to ADR bodies or the CAA about airlines operating in the UK. Data for Q4 is yet to be published.
The consumer champion has made repeated submissions to the CAA about airlines’ poor behaviour during this period. In April 2022, Which? wrote to the CAA about British Airways failing to reroute some passengers, after the carrier cancelled their flights. It did the same in June 2022 about easyJet, and in both cases, no significant action was taken.
Then in March this year, Which? reported its concerns about a disproportionately high number of complaints about Wizz Air, and unpaid County Court Judgments, to the CAA, and again, no meaningful action has yet been taken against the airline to ensure it upholds consumer rights. Separately, more than 1,100 Which? Travel campaign supporters have submitted evidence of their alleged mistreatment by airlines to the independent review of the CAA, calling on the regulator to take tougher action against non compliance.
While the CAA’s powers are limited, Which? believes the regulator should be doing more to name and shame airlines, and pursue action through the courts where it finds law-breaking. It also has the power to withdraw airline licences.
While the CAA could be doing more for consumers, it is also abundantly clear that it urgently needs stronger enforcement powers to be effective. Without the fining powers used by its foreign counterparts and other regulators in the UK, the CAA has been unable to hold airlines to account. It was therefore a step in the right direction to see the Department for Transport agreeing with the need to bolster protections for travellers this week, including introducing new fining powers for the CAA and mandatory ADR membership for airlines.
Which? believes the government must prioritise legislating 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.
These reforms alone will not be enough however, and the government should also consider going much further with its plan to improve the ADR system, and as well as making membership mandatory, introduce a single ombudsman, to ensure the ADR process for all passengers is consistent and accessible.
The government should also ensure that any future review of passenger’s rights does not seek to dilute existing consumer protections on flight delays and cancellations, and should abandon plans to weaken compensation for domestic flights.
Rocio Concha, Which? Directory of Policy and Advocacy, said:
“The US government fining Britain’s flag carrier when our own authorities are powerless to do the same makes a mockery of aviation regulation in the UK, which has been failing travellers for 20 years. Passengers have repeatedly endured unfair and in some cases unlawful treatment by some airlines in recent years and meaningful action is long past due.
“The government must act without delay and legislate to grant the CAA the powers it needs to issue hefty fines, and hold airlines to account when they break the law. Until it does so, UK travellers’ rights will be worth no more than the paper they are written on.”
Notes to editors:
– EC261 provides passengers with the right to refunds and compensation after cancellations and delays, and was carried over into UK law after Brexit.
-According to data published by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), in 2020, 2,399 complaints about British Airways in relation to EC261 were escalated to the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR), the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) service that handles complaints for the airline. In reality, the number of complaints is likely to be significantly higher, as this only captures those complaints escalated to an ADR body – many more would have been handled directly by the airline.
– An independent review into the CAA is currently ongoing and when its findings are released, Which? is calling on the government to ensure its response will be timely and robust, and urges both it and the CAA to act on the recommendations it will make.
-The CAA is the sector regulator for aviation and has a statutory duty to further the reasonable interests of users of air transport services, which should include taking necessary enforcement action, where appropriate, as a key function.
– Under the Enterprise Act, the CAA is able to use the Enhanced Consumer Measures (ECMs) regime – this allows enforcers to “bolt on” additional remedies when they obtain undertakings from infringing traders, or when they apply to the court for an enforcement order. ECMs can include compliance measures to require traders to take action to prevent repeat breaches and arrange redress schemes for financial losses that consumers have suffered. For example, the Civil Aviation Authority obtained ECM undertakings from Ryanair in 2017 requiring them to re-contact all passengers affected by certain flight cancellations and set out their rights clearly to choose a refund or a re-routing.
Which? campaign to Transform Travel
– 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.
More than 1,100 Which? Travel campaign supporters have also submitted evidence of their mistreatment by airlines to the independent review of the CAA.
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.
Find links to previous relevant investigations and actions below:
- Which? calls for urgent intervention as airlines rack up millions in court judgments
- Which? calls for Civil Aviation Authority to get stronger powers, as four in 10 travellers say they lack confidence in airlines treating them fairly
- Which? calls for major overhaul of travel rules to rein in law-breaking airlines amid summer holiday chaos
- Which? urges the CAA to investigate British Airways’ cancellation and re-routing policy
- Which? calls for investigation into EasyJet treatment of passengers amid airport chaos
- More than two million people haven’t received money back for flights they couldn’t board during the pandemic
Rights of reply:
A British Airways spokesperson said: “Where a customer’s flight is cancelled, we always offer options including a full refund, rerouting or rebooking onto another service, including with other airlines. We always meet our legal obligations.”
Anna Bowles, Head of Consumer at the UK Civil Aviation Authority, said: “We have regularly asked for stronger consumer enforcement 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.
“In its 2022 consultation, Reforming aviation consumer policy: protecting air passenger rights, the Government consulted on proposals, which included the possibility of providing the Civil Aviation Authority with additional enforcement powers.”
Ryanair: Ryanair refutes all claims: “Ryanair did not ‘refuse to compensate passengers’. Any Ryanair customers who are entitled to compensation due to staff strikes in 2018 and who applied directly to Ryanair for compensation, have received compensation directly from Ryanair in line with EU261.”
easyJet: “easyJet refutes the suggestion that we do not comply with our legal obligations relating to the passenger regulations governing disrupted flights. We clearly inform passengers of their rights via our Notice of Rights and Delays and Cancellations pages on our website, which are provided to customers if their flights are disrupted.
“We provide customers with a self-service tool which enables them to reroute quickly and easily on alternative flights if their flight is cancelled. Customers are able to submit an expenses claim easily via our expense form and we are currently reimbursing customers’ expenses and processing compensation in around 8 days.
“easyJet is in the process of appealing the Italian authorities’ ruling on the basis that we always complied with applicable legislation.”
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