LONDON – According to a new analysis by consumer body Which?, no airlines have been fined in the UK for breaking consumer laws since 2003. Which? has found that since the UK Civil Aviation Administration (CAA) had been given regulatory approval to issue fines to airlines over passenger refunds and compensation, no such action like that has been handed out.

The UK CAA had been given this power in 2003, meaning that no action has been taken against carriers for the last 17 years.

Photo: CityAM

Strong Words from Which?

Rory Boland, the editor of Which? travel stated that “serious reforms need to be made” to the current system to protect consumers further. “Without the ability to issue fines or take swift action against airlines, the Civil Aviation Authority has struggled to effectively stand up for the passengers it is there to protect.

“Several airlines already know this, and there’s a real risk some have felt empowered to break the law as a result – and without the threat of penalties, they may continue to do so. Trust in the travel industry has been battered in recent months, so passengers need a strong regulator they can count on.”

“It’s clear serious reforms need to be made to the sector. As a first step, the Government must take urgent steps to ensure the CAA has the tools it needs to effectively hold airlines to account.”

Photo: Which?

CAA’s Empty Defense?

The UK CAA did respond to the comments from Which? but has been taken in a way that the blame had been shifted over to the consumer body instead.

“Which? also has the same powers under Part 8 of the Enterprise Act when it comes to enforcement of consumer law, including Regulation 261/20014.”

Whilst this is true, the argument Which? make is that it is the CAA’s responsibility to do so as the organisation deals with airlines, airports and everything else in the sector.

Photo: AviationWA

Comments from the UK CAA

Richard Stephenson, a spokesperson for the UK CAA had even argued that the government body had used the bestowed powers before. “Using the powers we currently have, we work with airlines to receive commitments and undertakings to improve performance for consumers.”

“We have done this in many cases in recent years, including during our recent review into airline refunds during the coronavirus pandemic, which secured significant improvements for consumers, with call times and refund backlogs reduced.

“Receiving such undertakings is a formal use of our powers, and is the most immediate way of providing benefits to consumers as enforcement processes can take a considerable amount of time to complete given the potential for legal proceedings.”

He did suggest the point that the UK Government needs to give more power over to the CAA in order to enforce this better.

“We have called for more powers including the ability to impose fines in the past. This is something that would bring us in line with other sectoral regulators and would allow us to take stronger and faster action.”

Photo: The Times

Potential Examples of Action?

Which? did mention that one application for actions such as fining had been made in 2018. This was over allegations that Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair (FR) refused to compensate passengers for delays that had been caused due to industrial action by staff.

The court case is still yet to be heard, meaning that no other action has been able to take place. Back in July and August, the CAA and airlines in the UK were being criticized because of the duration of refunds being processed.

The CAA had opted to not take any action because of the likes of TUI (BY), Virgin Atlantic (VS) and others committing to processing refunds within seven days, as pertained under EU law.

Photo: Business Insider

Still No Change?

A major case study of no change occurring comes from FR itself. These following two tweets are examples of hundreds of messages FR receives every day. Some passengers have been waiting for up to six months for a refund during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this may not be the fault of the airline industry completely, or that of FR.

In Some Cases, It May Not Be The Airline’s Fault

The last statement made regarding refunds by FR was on July 3, which is just over two months ago. Eddie Wilson, the CEO placed the blame on unauthorized screen scrapers who may be making the process that much harder.

“We are pleased to have made such significant progress over the month of June in eliminating the backlog of cash refunds due to the Covid-19 flight cancellations. Over 90% of passengers who booked directly with Ryanair and who requested a cash refund for travel between March and June will receive their refunds before the end of July.”

“It is worrying however that a significant rump of our customers, who made bookings through unauthorized 3rd party screen scrapers / online travel agencies, have yet to receive their refunds because the OTAs gave Ryanair fake email addresses or virtual credit card details for these customers.”

Ryanair Boeing 737-8AS at Naples International Airport (NAP). Photo: ©Marco Macca – @aviator_ita

“We are highlighting this fact to the regulators in Ireland (CAR) and in the UK (CAA) as this demonstrates yet again why urgent regulation of unauthorized screen scrapers is needed to ensure that these unauthorized intermediaries provide airlines with accurate email addresses and valid payment details for customers so we can process cash refunds to these customers promptly and efficiently.”

“We will continue to process these cash refunds as fast as we can, and would encourage any customers who haven’t yet requested a cash refund, to do so with our Customer Service team and we will process their request as quickly as possible.” 

So What’s The Point?

Ryanair is right to bring up the use of unauthorized screen scrapers as a point for refunds being slower. Because the bookings are handled by a third party, it is much harder for details to be accessed, as explained in the above video the airline released.

It is not just FR that experiences this. A big chunk of the aviation market becomes victim to this, meaning there is nothing that can be fully done rather than booking directly. If anything, it could be down to government intervention that is much needed when it comes to tackling this particular issue.

With the screen scrapers being placed out of the picture, it means more fliers will book directly with carriers as opposed to booking with third parties, which will speed refunds if problems arise on an itinerary.

Photo: Financial Times

The Bigger Picture?

To conclude, Which? is very correct to bring this issue up, and it may not exactly be to the detriment of the UK CAA and the airline industry. There clearly needs to be further restrictions put in place, which means that the refund process needs to be more tight-knit and strict. This obviously includes the potential restrictions of screen scrapers in order to protect consumer confidence and rights.

In the meantime, the CAA has a lot of work to do this, and so does the UK Government. And this may not just be a UK CAA problem, it may be a global thing too. In the EU for example, the EU261 compensation policy may need to be tightened even further and potentially even outlaw some practices by third-parties.

Another example is in the US, as the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee (HTIC) has ruled that the cultures of Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) were to blame for the 737 MAX disasters. Specifically citing a lax oversight from the FAA.

The government body needs more autonomy in the way that it can handle this crisis, and it definitely shows that COVID-19 has exacerbated this problem.

Photo: The Times

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