Ryanair’s long overdue court date reminds us how necessary new powers for the aviation regulator will be. Passengers need a regulator they can rely on to stand up for their rights.
Amid all the talk of green, amber and red lists, COVID tests and quarantine, it would have been easy to miss what could yet turn out to be the Global Travel Taskforce’s most significant announcement.
Plans unveiled in the report to reform the enforcement powers of the Civil Aviation Authority are welcome and long overdue. They have the potential to fix – at long last – the broken balance of power between holidaymakers and airlines.
The perfect illustration of why change is so badly needed comes this week as Ryanair finally faces its first court date with the CAA in a dispute over the airline’s refusal to pay compensation for flights cancelled by staff strikes in 2018.
Our @WhichTravel editor, @roryboland, says, "Customers would have been outraged that Ryanair attempted to shirk its responsibilities by refusing to pay out compensation for cancelling services during the summer, which left hard-working families stranded."
— Which? (@WhichUK) December 5, 2018
Back then, when passengers claimed the payments of €250 or more that they were entitled to, Ryanair rejected them. It claimed the strikes should be considered “extraordinary circumstances” to absolve itself of paying the compensation owed.
When AviationADR, an industry dispute resolution service, said Ryanair would indeed have to pay out for the cancellations, the airline simply quit the voluntary scheme. As well as potentially saving millions of pounds with this cynical manoeuvre, the airline also left thousands of passengers with no other choice but to pursue their unresolved complaints themselves, either via the CAA or through the courts.
The CAA said that the passengers were entitled to compensation – but it lacked any powers to force Ryanair to pay. Pursuing an airline through the courts as an individual is a lengthy, impractical and unaffordable option for many people.
Ultimately the CAA took the least worst option remaining – announcing in December 2018 that it would launch legal action against Ryanair.
So, nearly three years on from the initial disruption, and nearly two and a half years on from the regulator launching its enforcement action against the airline, Ryanair is finally appearing in court, where it will maintain that it is not liable to pay compensation. So it’s anyone’s guess if or when those who are still waiting for compensation will receive their money back, and the court case could add many more months on to what has already been an extremely lengthy and expensive process.
Last year millions more holidaymakers got a taste of this frustration, learning how weak consumer protections in travel can be after nearly all air travel was suddenly grounded by the pandemic.
We found that all of the UK’s major airlines were breaking the law on refunds for cancelled flights, with passengers left out of pocket as a result.
Holding airlines to account
Despite this industry-wide disregard for the law, the CAA was hamstrung in its ability to effectively hold any airlines to account, once again lacking the powers it needed to take swift and effective action.
The regulator simply reminded carriers of their legal responsibilities – which amounted to little more than an easily-ignored ticking off – and passengers suffered as a result. Billions of pounds have been withheld illegally for flights and holidays put on hold by COVID.
An overhaul of the CAA’s powers is an essential first step towards restoring trust in the travel industry, which has been shattered by the refunds crisis. Enforcement options available to the regulator must be strengthened and extended – including the ability to fine airlines directly for breaches of consumer law.
Like Ryanair’s court case, the outcomes of this proposed reform won’t be secured overnight. The government has said it will publish its strategic framework for the aviation sector later this year, and consult on what these new powers will look like, before they’re then brought into law.
This process must lead to passengers getting a regulator they can finally rely on to stand up for their rights. Otherwise, there could be many more years of turbulence ahead for holidaymakers before they get any justice for airlines’ misconduct.