The Civil Aviation Authority has been forced to extend its review of how airlines deal with customer complaints after critics slammed the body for failing to tell consumer bodies its plans.
In July, the CAA published a consultation paper proposing how to improve the current Alternative Dispute Resolution system – a scheme used to ensure passengers are able to resolve any disputes without needing to take airlines to court.
Ordinarily, a consultation of this sort would be made public and all interested parties invited to respond formally to the plans, allowing them to challenge proposals they consider damaging.
But on this occasion, the CAA failed to notify airlines and airports of the proposed changes along with consumer champions, individuals and organisations, something it blamed on an ‘IT error’.
The CAA has launched an investigation into the current Alternative Dispute Resolution system
A statement on its website reads: ‘We were recently made aware that, due to an IT error, a small number of interested parties had not received an email alert about this consultation going live and therefore had not responded when the consultation closed.
‘Given the importance of this matter, the Civil Aviation Authority will be reopening the consultation for a six week period from Friday 9 October 2020 in order to allow for further responses to be considered as we continue to improve the ADR service for consumers.’
Helen Dewdney, the Complaining Cow and consumer champion, flagged the issue to the CAA earlier this month and warned its approach was ‘flawed and blinkered’.
‘It’s almost as if they don’t want to hear the changes and recommendations from the people who are best qualified to suggest improvements, the passengers themselves,’ she said.
The Ombudsman Association, a professional association for ombudsman schemes, was also left of the list of parties notified by the CAA.
Donal Galligan, the association’s chief executive, said: ‘There are numerous examples from various sectors that what works best for both consumers and driving improvements in an industry is a single mandatory ombudsman.
‘It is time that the UK government mirrored their own approach in rail, energy, and new homes, and drive the establishment of a single mandatory aviation ombudsman.’
This isn’t what the CAA is proposing.
Instead, it wants to include a new process for ‘complex and novel’ customer complaints and disputes and a post-decision review process that could give airlines an opportunity to influence how future cases are handled.
Consumer body Which? has now raised concerns that the proposed changes would do little to address the weaknesses of the existing system.
Among these, it highlighted that the current scheme involves unreasonably long waits for passengers as they go through a long and convoluted dispute process, which puts too many people off complaining at all.
Along with the OA, Which? is also calling for the government to introduce a new aviation ombudsman scheme that all airlines operating in the UK must be made to join.
This would improve the passenger complaints process and should form part of the government’s upcoming aviation recovery plan, it said.
Currently, it is not even mandatory for airlines to be members of an ADR scheme.
There is currently only one Ombudsman in the travel sector which is the Rail Ombudsman
Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said: ‘Throughout the coronavirus crisis, passengers have seen their consumer rights ripped up by some airlines that have consistently flouted the law – but they have found there is nowhere to turn for support.
‘This situation has only served to highlight that the current complaints system is broken, and tinkering around the edges will not be enough to reform it and make it work for passengers.
‘The government must ensure that passengers’ needs are front and centre in its aviation recovery plan, starting with the introduction of a mandatory, single ombudsman scheme for airlines, as a first step to restoring trust in the sector.’
The airline industry has seen public backlash in recent months after many airlines refused to refund flights cancelled because of the pandemic.
Thousands of holidaymakers were left waiting months and months to get a refund for their cancelled trips whilst others were told to make do with vouchers.
Criticism was also levelled against the CAA for not doing enough to hold airlines to account despite a new chairman, Stephen Hillier, starting on 1 August 2020.
This is Money contacted the CAA for comment which said it received a number of responses to the original consultation, including from key stakeholders such as Which?.
Following the initial closing of the consultation, it said it was made aware that, due to an IT error, a small number of stakeholders had not received an email alert about this consultation going live and therefore had not responded before the consultation closed.
Therefore, in order to enable stakeholders to respond to this important matter, it reopened the consultation for a six week period from Friday 9 October 2020, and is now contacting organisations and individuals directly to invite their responses, which will be considered as it ‘continues to improve the ADR service for consumers’.
Ryanair tops CAA refund complaints
Ryanair is the most complained about airline by far, according to separate figures recently released by the CAA.
More than half of all the 1,280 complaints received by the CAA regarding refunds due to Covid-19 related cancellations were about Ryanair.
The airline body received 642 complaints about Ryanair with the second most complained about airline, Air Transat, not even close, with a total of only 120 complaints.
The CAA has collated the information on 74 airlines, recording how many passengers have complained about cancellation refunds during the Covid-19 pandemic period.
It found that Ryanair was one of the airlines that was not processing refund requests sufficiently quickly. It said the airline had a sizeable backlog of refund requests and that refunds were taking 10 weeks or longer.
In response, on 3 July, Ryanair published a set of commitments on its website about timescales for processing cash refunds.
The budget airline confirmed that 90 per cent of its backlog would be cleared by the end of July with all refund claims made in April to be processed by 15 July and most of the claims made in May by the end of July.