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Flight home delayed or cancelled this Christmas? Your compensation rights could soon be in jeopardy unless the Transport Secretary acts

Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?

Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which? | Which?

5 min read Partner content

With travel chaos becoming the new normal this festive season, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?, Rocio Concha, explains why the government should avoid weakening compensation rights for domestic flight passengers.

After the widespread chaos at Britain’s airports this year, travellers can only hope there will be no repeat as we head into the festive season. But with strike action set to cause significant disruption, airlines still in the process of restaffing, and covid and flu a joint threat to staffing levels, it seems unlikely that many airlines will be up to the challenge.

Why then, with our travel system seemingly stuck in a perpetual state of chaos, and hundreds of thousands of us left high and dry by our airlines this year, are there proposals on the table to weaken compensation rights for domestic flight passengers when things go wrong? The new Transport Secretary recently said he was committed to protecting consumers and giving them confidence. If this is the case, one of his first priorities should be scrapping plans tabled by the previous government, which would in effect reward airlines for their repeated failures and set a dangerous precedent for weakening consumer rights.

This is particularly concerning given the government’s rush to decide whether to retain, remove or reform thousands of EU regulations by the end of next year, many of which have been cornerstones of UK consumer rights for years. A ‘sunset clause’ in this Retained EU Law Bill means that many laws, including those on domestic flight compensation rights, could be scrapped – or in this case weakened - unless a proactive effort is made to retain them.

Which? analysis of figures from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) certainly shows an unsettling picture for airlines’ records on domestic flights – even back in 2019, our last relatively normal year of travel before the pandemic, more than one in every five (22%) domestic flights was delayed by more than fifteen minutes in December, while 205 were cancelled altogether.

Last year the number of Christmas cancellations rose further, to 230, despite there being almost 7,000 fewer flights overall. The number of people facing delays also remained at around a fifth (19%), suggesting that while Omicron certainly caused the aviation industry problems last Christmas, the issues faced by the sector pre-date the pandemic.

Which? is also concerned that these changes, if introduced, would disproportionately impact those in Northern Ireland and Scotland, who are most likely to rely on domestic air travel to connect them to friends, family, and work in other parts of the UK.

At present, anyone delayed by more than three hours is, in most cases, entitled to claim £220 in compensation, an amount which can not only help the traveller with extra expenses incurred like taxis and hotels, but also feels proportionate to the potential inconvenience caused. The only time this does not apply is if the airline can prove the cause was beyond its control (for example in the event of extreme weather) and it took all reasonable measures to prevent the delay.

Compensation also acts as an important financial deterrent to poor behaviour by airlines, making them more likely to think twice before engaging in practices such as overbooking.

This proposal will do nothing more than heap more misery on travellers

Airlines however have been lobbying for a new system, and the previous government appeared to have caved into their demands. They proposed a new scheme much like the Delay Repay system rail users will be familiar with, in which the amount of compensation you are paid is calculated as a percentage of your ticket price – a smaller percentage for shorter delays, all the way up to 100% of your airfare for longer ones of three hours or more.

Though it was argued that more people would be entitled to compensation, as those delayed for less than three hours would be able to claim, the amount available will be significantly reduced.

When you consider that the average domestic airfare is around £57, you’ll realise how small the potential maximum pay-outs could be – and certainly not proportional to the stress and inconvenience of a cancelled or seriously delayed flight, or enough to cover the cost of alternative last minute travel, perhaps with a more expensive carrier.

Airlines on the other hand will stand to make significant savings. Which? calculates that for a fully booked flight running from Edinburgh to London, a serious delay of three hours or more would currently see the airline payout up to £39,600. Under the government’s proposed scheme the maximum payout is reduced to just £7,920, based on each passenger receiving 100% of their fare in compensation, which for this route averages at £44 for an economy seat.

Our journeys this month will undoubtedly be some of the most important we make all year, with many people across the UK reliant on domestic flights to get them home for Christmas. While Which? welcomes the opportunity for reform and the chance to modernise consumer protections, this proposal will do nothing more than heap more misery on travellers. Surely it’s time the government stepped up for the ordinary consumer and scrapped plans to cut our compensation.

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