On 27 June 2023, the Department for Transport (DfT) published its response to the aviation consumer policy reform consultation, which sought views on a range of air passenger rights issues and focused on enhancing consumer protection and improving the consumer experience, including accessibility.
The consultation launched in January 2022 covered potential reforms in four key areas to ensure that consumers are protected, treated fairly, and that best practice from the industry becomes commonplace. These included:
- Considering the tools the regulator has in order to enforce consumer protection regulations and how they could be enhanced.
- Methods available for individual consumers to resolve issues and how these could be strengthened.
- Compensation for domestic flights for cancellations and delays.
- Accessibility provisions for disabled and less mobile passengers. Reference to disabled passengers and those with reduced mobility includes (but is not limited to):
- People who are less mobile, such as older people, a person with a broken leg or pregnant women.
- Physical disabilities, such as wheelchair users, or people with vision or hearing impairments.
- Non-visible disabilities, such as people with heart conditions, those with chronic illnesses, people living with autism, Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Recommendations proposed by the UK Government
Cost of repairs
At present, airlines are not required to cover the full cost of repairs, even if the equipment is damaged while in their care. Transport Secretary Mark Harper has stated: “I recognise the work airlines do around the clock in order to provide a good service to customers and today’s proposals set out how we can go even further for travellers”. Further, “I’ve heard really concerning examples of passengers’ wheelchairs getting damaged and being left without full and fair compensation. It’s important that everyone can travel with confidence”.
In response, there are plans to legislate to remove the cap on compensation for wheelchairs or mobility aids damaged on domestic UK flights. The measures will mean such passengers can obtain full and fair compensation for damage caused on UK domestic flights. Airlines will also be encouraged to waive this cap for international flights.
Under the DfT’s new proposals, the enforcement powers of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will be enhanced by providing additional administrative tools, such as issuing financial penalties. Whilst further details have not yet been provided as to what those powers may include, the DfT has confirmed that it will be working closely with the CAA on the design of those powers to make sure they are both effective and proportionate.
Alternative dispute resolution
At the moment there are two alternative dispute resolution (ADR) providers in the UK and airlines can join voluntarily. Mandatory membership to an ADR body has also been proposed for airlines operating to, from and within the UK. Most UK airlines are already members of an ADR body, but for the minority that are not, this will ensure consumers have a full suite of options available to resolve disputes no matter which provider they travel with. The main reasons cited for supporting the introduction of mandatory ADR were clarity and ease of use for consumers, quicker outcomes and ADR being potentially more cost effective than going through the court system.
The consultation also looked at the current rules around compensation for delayed domestic UK flights. The current system provides compensation for passengers in the event of delays resulting in arrival more than three hours after the original scheduled arrival, in set amounts, depending on the distance of the flight. Under the European Union’s EU261 rule, passengers on flights shorter than 1,500km (932 miles) can claim £220 for delays of more than three hours – but nothing for shorter hold-ups.
The responses to this section of the consultation were varied and illustrate that any reform to the compensation system will be complex and involve a range of competing factors. At this stage, the DfT has concluded that more work is needed to consider the merits and limitations of any changes. Therefore, it has committed to a further consultation on the compensation and payment framework across all forms of disruption (cancellations, delays and denied boarding).
Initial reactions to the UK Government’s response have been encouraging, with Paul Smith, the Joint-Interim Chief Executive at the CAA, stating, “We welcome the announcement from government today to enhance the rights of air passengers, alongside strengthening the enforcement powers of the Civil Aviation Authority and making ADR mandatory”.
Whilst the UK Government has committed to bring forward legislation in order to grant additional powers to the CAA, remove the cap on compensation for wheelchairs or mobility aids damaged on domestic UK flights, along with imposing mandatory ADR on airlines, it has provided no timeline as to when this will happen. In our view, any legislation is unlikely to be introduced this parliamentary session. However, further information may be made available in the King’s Speech which is due to take place on 7 November 2023.
In the meantime, stakeholders should keep an eye out for the UK Government’s further consultation on the compensation and payment framework across all forms of disruption.