The Competition and Markets Authority and the Civil Aviation Authority have published an open letter to airlines, warning them about their obligations under consumer protection law.

The aviation industry has been under significant pressure since the easing of travel restrictions earlier this year, with widespread delays, cancellations and capacity cuts at airports.

The CMA and CAA said that while they recognised that “some airlines have performed better than others, and we acknowledge and welcome some recent improvements, for example flight cancellations being announced earlier”, they were concerned that consumers “could experience significant harm unless airlines meet their obligations and minimise flight disruptions throughout the summer and beyond”.

The letter said that “some airlines may not be doing everything they could to avoid engaging in one or more harmful practices”, including:

  • Selling more tickets for flights than they can reasonably expect to supply and failing to warn consumers about the ensuing risk of cancellation
  • Not always fully satisfying obligations to offer consumers re-routing (including with alternative carriers where necessary) in the event of cancellation
  • Failing to give consumers sufficiently clear and upfront information about their rights on cancellation, and/or to provide adequate and appropriate support and care where flights are cancelled or disrupted

The letter continued that airlines would be expected to “closely monitor their likely ability to ensure flights take off as scheduled”, and to stop marketing tickets for flights “if they cannot be reasonably confident they will go ahead”.

Easyjet and British Airways have pre-emptively cancelled hundreds of flights for the coming months, and Heathrow airport recently introduced a cap on flights numbers over the summer period.

The decision led to a row with Emirates which called the move “entirely unreasonable and unacceptable”, stating that the airport had given it just 36 hours to comply with capacity cuts, including the dictating of “the specific flights on which we should throw out paying passengers”.

The two parties subsequently came to an agreement, but the incident illustrated the pressures currently being felt across the industry due to staff shortages and soaring demand.

Emirates and Heathrow reach agreement over capacity cuts

The open letter said that airlines should “on an ongoing basis, assess and review all the key factors which could lead to flights being cancelled, and take steps to mitigate these or stop advertising flights where their assessment suggests there is a high likelihood of cancellation”.

Key factors for assessment should include staff numbers, recruitment processes, and the likelihood of disruption being caused by other essential suppliers.

The letter also reiterated that “Consumers have a number of important rights when a flight is cancelled”, warning airlines that they must communicate these rights “accurately and clearly” to avoid consumers being mislead, and adding that customers should not be required to “hunt” for such information.

On the subject of re-routing options, the letter said that airlines should have in place “reasonably appropriate organisation and support staff to source replacement flights and complete the booking if consumers wish to take up this offer”, and warned that airlines who ask passengers to make their own arrangements on another carrier maybe breaching professional diligence standards for those consumers who are not in a position to do so.

On a positive note the letter said that “So far it appears that refunds and compensation are generally being processed and paid in a timely fashion”, although it flagged the concern that payment delays and other issues could emerge over the summer as more flights are cancelled.

The letter concluded that the CMA and CAA share consumer protection law enforcement powers in the aviation sector under the Enterprise Act 2002, adding that they would consider further action including enforcement should they “receive evidence that consumers continue to experience these serious problems”.,