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For travel reform to take off, passengers must first be on board

Neena Bhati

Neena Bhati | Which?

4 min read Partner content

The travel industry has suffered more than most since the onset of the pandemic but its recovery cannot come at the expense of consumer rights. Today, I will appear before the Transport select committee to argue for greater protection for travellers as we look towards a fairer future.

Families flocking overseas for October half term. Virgin and British Airways flights taking off from Heathrow simultaneously, bound for New York as the US reopens. It is increasingly starting to feel as though travel is returning to normal.

Yet jolts of reality remind us of how things really are. Travelling abroad still carries considerable risk - just ask British holidaymakers who last month saw half-term Morocco trips cancelled with just a few days’ notice as UK flights were banned due to high Covid cases. Once again, families disappointed to be missing out on a week of sunshine were left asking: what are my rights and will my money be protected?

Sadly, the answers to those questions aren’t straightforward. Airlines and holiday companies are free to treat customers’ money like an interest-free loan to be spent how they like months before travel actually takes place - a recipe for disaster when a pandemic or other unforeseen event leads to millions of people requesting a refund at the same time.  

These issues were not new when Covid came - take the insolvencies of Monarch and Thomas Cook in 2017 and 2019 respectively that left many passengers wondering what their rights were.

Yet travel during the pandemic has brought them into sharper relief and helps to explain why levels of consumer confidence in travel have plummeted. Which?’s latest Consumer Insight Tracker shows that trust in the aviation and holiday sector is at just 27 per cent - far lower than the banking sector. 

How is this allowed to happen? One reason is that regulators such as the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) don’t have appropriate powers to clamp down on poor behaviour and hold companies accountable.

The CMA recently closed an investigation into BA and Ryanair failing to refund passengers because it didn’t think the law was clear enough on whether passengers are entitled to a refund when their flight goes ahead but they are legally prohibited from taking it, as has happened so often during the pandemic. The result? As so often, customers left in the lurch. 

The task of rebuilding trust in the travel sector is not a quick fix. Once broken, consumer confidence is difficult to restore. However, Which? believes that the government can address these issues if its forthcoming Aviation Strategy includes a long-term plan that addresses the gaps and inconsistencies in consumer protections and enforcement. 

Above all, reform means ensuring that passengers are properly protected. In practice, that requires the government to deliver on its commitment to strengthen regulators’ powers, enabling them to take tougher action against companies that break consumer law, encourage compliance and deter bad behaviour.

Going on holiday ought to be fun. For those who have braved it in the past 20 months, the experience has often also been plagued with stress, anxiety and confusion

If the CAA had had the ability to impose, or threaten, direct fines on airlines and operators, then lengthy arbitration and costly court processes could be avoided, saving consumers’ and the courts’ time - and taxpayers’ money. 

Other ways of resolving disputes in the sector, such as alternative dispute resolution (ADR) exist, but they too are insufficiently powerful to compel companies that misbehave to pay out and change their ways. Membership of ADR is voluntary - and airlines can simply walk away from decisions they don’t like, as Ryanair did a few years ago when it was ordered to refund passengers for cancelled flights caused by industrial action.

Here, a single statutory backed ombudsman with mandatory membership would help to improve industry performance and better represent consumers’ interests and to take the burden away from the customer - and taxpayer - in pursuing refunds in small claims courts.

Passenger protections must also extend to the testing market, for however long tests are required in order to travel. Rogue testing companies, who have appeared on government lists of approved providers, have too often not fulfilled their side of the deal by returning results in time. Unregulated, they’ve taken extortionate sums from customers and failed to deliver, with few consequences for such appalling service.

It simply isn’t acceptable to place the onus squarely on the consumer to do their research on providers. The government must step in and provide clear and coherent advice on which companies they should choose - and what consumers’ rights are should things go wrong. 

Going on holiday ought to be fun. For those who have braved it in the past 20 months, the experience has often also been plagued with stress, anxiety and confusion.

The Government rightly will want to see the travel industry back on its feet but this can’t be achieved without ensuring passengers’ rights are upheld and trust is restored to ultimately give back to the economy - something I will be arguing today in front of interested MPs on the transport select committee. 

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