Which? calls for overhaul of broken airline complaints system

5th October 2020 by admin

Which? is calling for the introduction of a new mandatory aviation ombudsman, amid concerns that proposed changes to the broken airline complaints system fall far short of what is needed to restore consumer trust in travel.

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The consumer champion 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 do not work for consumers and risk further damaging trust in the travel sector.

Which? has repeatedly heard from passengers who have been let down by the convoluted dispute resolution process. Some have battled for over 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.

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.

Instead, 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, as part of its upcoming aviation recovery plan.

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.

After Ryanair was told to pay £2.6 million to passengers whose flights were cancelled by strikes in 2018, it simply quit the AviationADR scheme, potentially saving millions in unclaimed compensation.

Due to its limited enforcement powers, the CAA was unable to penalise Ryanair. The regulator took legal action in December 2018, but almost two years later there is still no sign of passengers getting the compensation they are owed.

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, with concerns that ADR schemes might prioritise attracting new business over delivering for consumers.

Passengers are also let down by the current system as many are either put off using ADR schemes because of the long and complex process of doing so, or aren’t aware they may be able to use them to escalate their complaints. Instead, many choose to take court action themselves or rely on a claims management firm to fight their claim on their behalf.

Thousands of court proceedings are issued against airlines by claims management firms every year, with passengers having to pay a significant fee to their solicitor out of any compensation they win.

Which? member Premini Mahendra used a claims management firm to fight her case against Tui after her flight was delayed by 13 hours. The case took 12 months, and a bailiff was eventually required to collect the compensation. Premini was awarded €400, of which the solicitors took almost €180. She said “[Tui] just wanted to frustrate me and string out the process. Lots of people probably just give up.”

If the government’s aviation recovery plan – due this autumn – is to deliver for passengers, it should be published without delay, and must include clear plans to introduce a single, statutory-backed aviation ombudsman scheme that all airlines operating in the UK must be members of, in order to help restore consumer trust in the travel sector which has plummeted in recent months.

In the interim, the CAA must ensure it makes the existing ADR schemes work better for passengers. The regulator should step up scrutiny of existing ADR bodies, and ensure greater transparency for the complaints handling process. It must also improve its requirements for data reporting and encourage airlines to act on their complaints data.

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