/ Travel & Leisure

Why new aviation regulator powers are so necessary

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.

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.

Unresolved complaints

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.


This is probably not quite in the remit of this convo, but . . .

Seven years ago, we flew back from holiday and were then ill with a virus that was never properly diagnosed or recognised.

What I would like to see is a database that travellers could enter any medical problems they suffer after travelling or search for other similar cases to their own. Did other people in that time-frame, on the same flight or destination suffer anything similar? Did doctors come up with a real diagnosis?

With Covid being a major world problem, it would seem a very good time to implement a World Travellers Health Database.

Coincidentally alfa, many years ago, during a family holiday in Fuengirola, Spain, we met up with a gastroenterologist and his family who were staying at the same hotel who also happened to take the same flight back to the UK.

The day after returning home I went down with a severe stomach bug. To my surprise, whilst recovering in bed I received a phone call from the same gastroenterologist we met in Fuengirola whose family were all down with the same bug. He was certain we all caught it from the meal served on the plane coming home. Because of his profession he was looking for confirmation from other affected people travelling on the same flight so that he could report it.

I never heard anything more from him so I assume he did.

If there was a travellers health database, you might have been able to pinpoint whether it was the plane, hotel, a local restaurant or something going around that area of Spain although in your case, the gastroenterologist was most likely correct.

Patrick Taylor says:
2 May 2021

Another example in the world of quangos etc where there is no big stick that could be used. And I do not think it is accidental that so many are ineffective from the point of view of consumers. Take the ASA for instance which is an industry creation.

Seems to me that it would be an interesting piece of research to look at all these sorts of bodies – preferably before creation – to point out the defects from the consumers point of view.

Perhaps W? should be the instigator and holder of such a list so that all consumers can see that the consumer champion is monitoring the effectiveness or otherwise of so many regulatory bodies.

W? unfortunately does not compile overviews or even aggregate its comments on things like the air industry and this article is actually better than most in giving a background to the Ryanair case. That is really good. However in a years time it will be lost in the abysmal W? search/indexing system. There is a need for a running overview on such areas as aviation, and housebuilders which tend

Em says:
3 May 2021

Is the emotive bias towards “holidaymakers” and “hard-working families” needing more protection really necessary?

All airline passengers are equal under the law. We have exactly the same rights to compensation for flight cancellations and delays, whether travelling for leisure or business.

Lots of Which? members are also employees or run small businesses. Having a flight cancelled or delayed when you are supposed to be working the next day and then having to fight for compensation is no fun either. Please ensure you represent and speak for all your members – and maybe even families that don’t work hard.