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Which? calls for ban on unfair airline terms

Written by: Emma Lunn
Which? is urging the aviation regulator to ban rip-off ‘no-show’ clauses on flights.

Airlines routinely bump passengers off the second half of a return trip if a passenger misses the outbound flight. In some cases airlines are effectively able to double their money by reselling the seats they cancel, with no refund given to passengers.

Ticket terms and conditions allow them to do this – but passengers are often unaware this is the case with many left hundreds of pounds out of pocket.

In December 2018 Which? wrote to nine airlines, including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, informing them that the practice is potentially in breach of both the Consumer Rights Act and the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Directive.

This is because the clause creates a ‘significant imbalance’ between the airline, which stands to profit from the term, and passengers who face having to pay out considerable sums of money to rebook.

Of the nine airlines, Flybe was the only carrier that pledged to make some changes in response, but it has not removed its ‘no-show’ clause completely.

British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Emirates, KLM, Air France, Singapore, Qatar and Swiss have all retained the clauses.

Which? had already secured commitments from Thomas Cook Airlines and Aurigny to scrap the terms, which have recently been ruled unlawful in Austria, before it wrote to the other airlines.

Out of pocket

In one case reported to Which?, a theatre director and her child were stuck in Malaysia and had to pay £600 to Malaysia Airlines to get home to Britain, leaving the young mother suffering from anxiety around flights and travelling.

In another, a musician from Bristol had to buy a new return flight from Portland to Heathrow for nearly £700 with Virgin Atlantic after work commitments meant that she was unable to take her scheduled outbound flight.

The consumer champion also heard from a holidaymaker who has vowed never to fly with British Airways again after having to pay more than £600 to get home when the airline cancelled return tickets from Pisa for him and his wife.

Disproportionate penalty

In a report released last week, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said a policy of automatically cancelling a passenger’s return if they do not take the outbound flight was ‘disproportionate’.

It also said that ‘no-show’ clauses used by some airlines – including British Airways – fell short of its expectations on ‘fairness and transparency’ for consumers.

British Airways say that many of its tickets allow customers to make changes to their flights if they inform the airline before they travel. It stated that the policy is common practice in the industry, designed to stop ‘tariff abuse’ – when passengers buy return tickets that are cheaper than a single flight.

Virgin Atlantic state that it will not cancel inbound flights where there has been a legitimate change in circumstances, provided the customer gets in touch first.

Malaysia Airlines say if a passenger does not board one sector of their journey it assumes that the passenger will not be traveling on the connecting or return flights, unless the passenger informs the airline otherwise.

Despite its criticism, the CAA stopped short of taking any enforcement action to prevent passengers from getting ripped off by the practice.

Which? believes this decision puts the interests of airlines ahead of passengers, and is urging the regulator to put an end to the practice by enforcing an outright ban on the clauses.

Caroline Normand, Which? director of advocacy, said: “It’s totally unreasonable for an airline to cancel a passenger’s return flight – often without warning – simply because they’ve missed the first leg of their journey. Airlines have been able to cash in with this tactic for too long – leaving people miserable, stranded and hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds out of pocket.

“If airlines are not going to do the right thing and stop this disgraceful practice on their own, the Civil Aviation Authority should step in and ban these rip-off clauses.”

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