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Which? calls for overhaul of airline complaints system

Emma Lunn
Written By:
Emma Lunn

The consumer group is calling for the introduction of a new mandatory aviation ombudsman to restore consumer trust in travel.

Which? has responded to the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) consultation on potential changes to its current Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) policy, highlighting how the current rules don’t work for consumers and risk further damaging trust in the travel sector.

Which? said it has repeatedly heard from passengers who have been let down by the convoluted dispute resolution process.

Some have battled for more than a year to receive compensation for their case, despite promises that cases would be resolved within 90 days.

Others have had to rely on claims management firms, with one woman Which? spoke to having to hand over nearly half of the compensation she was entitled to as payment to her solicitors.

The CAA’s proposed changes to the internal rules for ADR schemes include a new process for “complex and novel” cases and a post-decision review process that could give airlines an opportunity to influence how future cases are handled.

Which? is concerned the proposed changes will do little to address the weaknesses of the existing system, and amount to little more than tinkering around the edges. The proposals also appear to prioritise airlines’ perspectives over consumers’, and risk already weak consumer protections being further diluted.

Which? says the current system makes it too easy for airlines to shirk their responsibilities to promptly refund or compensate consumers – even allowing them to quit dispute resolution schemes without penalty, as Ryanair did in 2018 – leaving thousands of passengers out of pocket.

It also involves unreasonably long waits for passengers as they go through a long and convoluted dispute process, which puts too many people off complaining at all.

Calls for new aviation ombudsman

Which? is calling for the government to introduce a new aviation ombudsman scheme that all airlines operating in the UK must be made to join to improve the passenger complaints process.

The review of the “broken” complaints system comes as consumer trust in the sector continues to dwindle as a result of the coronavirus outbreak’s impact on the sector.

According to the latest figures from Which?’s Consumer Insight tracker, trust in the travel industry is still worryingly low, with nearly a third (31%) of consumers saying they do not trust airlines and travel operators.

The majority of the largest airlines flying from the UK are currently signed up to one of two UK schemes, AviationADR or CEDR. While both have been authorised to handle escalated passenger complaints since 2016, neither is mandatory and airlines are free to leave the schemes at will.

Which? is also concerned that allowing airlines a choice between resolution schemes could enable them to “game the system” and switch between schemes based on which one they think will deliver more favourable outcomes.

Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, says: “Throughout the coronavirus crisis, passengers have seen their consumer rights ripped up by some airlines that have consistently flouted the law – but they have found there is nowhere to turn for support.

“This situation has only served to highlight that the current complaints system is broken, and tinkering around the edges will not be enough to reform it and make it work for passengers.

“The government must ensure that passengers’ needs are front and centre in its aviation recovery plan, starting with the introduction of a mandatory, single ombudsman scheme for airlines, as a first step to restoring trust in the sector.”