Last weekend the Department for Transport published an “Aviation Passenger Charter” which sets out “what you, as a passenger, need to know about your rights and responsibilities when flying.” It comes at what is surely the lowest point in history for the aviation industry, as tens and thousands of flights have been cancelled and, for the third summer in a row, travellers have been beset by chaos and confusion.
Our holidays have been wrecked, our travel plans ruined. We have lost out on family reunions, missed vital appointments. We have been left out of pocket, hanging on the phone and stranded at airports. And while it is thoughtful of the DfT to remind us of our rights in these situations, it is hard to have much confidence that we will be able to enforce them. We have had no-one to stand up for us. And when we have tried to take things into our own hands, we have found the information desk empty and been left on hold for hours at a time.
Our consumer champion, Gill Charlton, says that since 2020 her inbox has been inundated by readers complaining about airlines. “There has been a basic failure to deal with a raft of problems – from unpaid refunds and unusable vouchers to delayed baggage and cancelled flights. The airlines seem unable to cope with the scale of the problems but now, with the pandemic behind us, it’s time they faced up to their legal responsibilities and addressed some fundamental issues, notably the way they communicate – or mostly don’t – with their customers at the airport, on the phone, and online. They simply don’t seem to understand the level of anger out there.”
In fact, as Which? has pointed out, as well as offering appalling customer service, many airlines are ignoring fundamental consumer-rights legislation – especially the rules about what they are required to offer when flights are cancelled. It has reported both EasyJet and British Airways to the Civil Aviation Authority on this count. Yet, nearly three months after the first referral, no enforcement action has been taken.
It’s true that airlines have faced unprecedented challenges caused by the pandemic. But they have had more than enough time to get their act together. The current situation can’t be allowed to continue. A passenger charter simply isn’t enough. As Rory Boland, editor of Travel Which? says, “Airports and airlines need to be held to account for the unacceptable disruption travellers have faced in recent months. Reform of travel rules which will hold airlines to account is desperately needed.”
So Telegraph Travel has joined with Which? to campaign for new measures to protect consumers and ensure that order is restored in the aviation industry. These are complex issues and Which? has developed a full policy report which is available on the Consumers’ Association website. But three concerns stand out and these will be our primary focus:
Currently there is no effective mechanism for ensuring that the rules which protect air passengers are consistently enforced. Last month the CAA promised action against airlines found to be “systematically letting consumers down”. But what we need more than vague promises of action. We need a watch dog with real teeth. We think that the government needs to give the CAA much greater powers to hold airlines to account and the authority to fine them directly so it can better enforce consumer protection laws in the aviation sector.
Consumers need a dispute resolution system which is mandatory for all airlines flying to and from the UK and which passengers can use to uphold their rights without having to go to the small claims court.
EU rules, which give passengers wide ranging rights and significant compensation when airlines are at fault for delays and cancellations, are currently being reviewed by the government. They must not be watered down. Proposals to cut compensation for domestic flights in particular must be dropped.
We will keep you up to date on the progress of the campaign. In the meantime, if you have a problem with a flight or an airline please email us at [email protected] and if we can help, we will. And you can also sign up to the Which? campaign petition.