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Travel firms and consumer watchdog call for airlines to be fined if they fail customers

Emma Lunn
Written By:
Emma Lunn

Which? and a group of travel agents have called for the aviation regulator to be given stronger powers to act amid flight cancellations as the summer of travel disruption continues.

The coalition, led by the consumer champion, has written to Rishi Sunak asking for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to be given the power to fine airlines for unlawful behaviour in the upcoming King’s Speech.

The letter to the Prime Minister is co-signed by leading travel businesses including The Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO), loveholidays, On The Beach and Thomas Cook. It calls 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.

The summer of disruption

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.

Which? said that flight delays have “become endemic”, with CAA figures 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% in the years leading up to the pandemic.

While airlines are not always directly responsible for disruption, Which? said they have a number of legal responsibilities to their customers “which are frequently ignored”. These include ensuring passengers are quickly rerouted 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.

Stronger enforcement powers

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. Which? said that 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.

In Which?’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 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.

Wizz Air enforcement action

Last month, the CAA 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 had 1,601 outstanding Count Court Judgements (CCJ) worth almost £2.2m against it.

Although the CAA is now taking enforcement action, the regulator is reliant on undertakings from Wizz Air to comply. If the company does 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.

Other countries have taken stringent action against airlines found to be breaking the law. Most recently, the US issued a $1.1m fine to British Airways for failing to refund passengers during the pandemic. In the UK, the aviation regulator is powerless to act similarly.

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.”