After 18 months of widespread flight cancellations due to the coronavirus pandemic and passenger anger over refunds, there is no clarity over the promise of greater powers for the aviation regulator.
In April, ministers promised that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) would be given more teeth to pursue and penalise carriers that did not comply with the rules on refunds.
In its second Global Travel Taskforce report in April 2021, the Department for Transport (DfT) said it was set on “reforming the enforcement powers that the CAA has on airlines that breach consumer rights”.
The report said the details would be included “in the strategic framework for the aviation sector to be published later this year”.
It specified: “This will build on the Competition and Markets Authority investigations on the practices of travel agents and airlines in issuing refunds to customers affected by the travel restrictions during Covid-19.
But in a Commons written answer, the aviation minister, Robert Courts, said: “Due to the significant impact that the Covid-19 crisis has had on both our aviation industry and the CAA, we do not consider it appropriate at this time to review the statutory duties of the CAA overall.”
Mr Courts was responding to a question by Ruth Cadbury MP to the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, asking if he would review the statutory duties of the Civil Aviation Authority.
He added: “We will consider changes to the CAA’s powers and duties where necessary.”
A DfT spokesperson said: “It is wrong to claim that plans to ensure airlines refund passengers will be scrapped.
“We remain committed to protecting passengers who are waiting for refunds from flights affected by Covid restrictions, and we will soon be consulting on how we can strengthen the Civil Aviation Authority’s powers to enforce protections for air passengers.”
In a report on refunds in July 2020, the authority reiterated its need “for stronger, more immediate, powers to act to protect consumer rights” and set out the challenges it faces: “We do not have powers to impose a financial penalty on a business or to require them to stop an infringement.
“Our enforcement powers are not well suited to swift action and it can take a considerable period of time for a case to come before the courts. This leads to a period of time when businesses are able to continue breaching the law without sanction.
“We have called on the government for improved powers to ensure that we have a more flexible enforcement toolkit that allows us to deal more effectively with a wide range of compliance issues.”
At a hearing of the Transport Select Committee in March, the CAA’s chief executive, Richard Moriarty, said: “Our Enterprise Act powers are quite cumbersome and time-consuming.
“Other sector regulators – Ofcom and Ofgem – have modified their powers over recent years. They have the ability to declare publicly that there has been a breach of the law.
“They can get a company to desist from what it is doing and pay money back. They can, indeed, issue financial penalties on failing companies. We do not have that toolkit, although I should say that we have very constructive conversations with government colleagues about improving our toolkit over time.”
At the same session, the Ryanair chief executive, Michael O'Leary, said: “Everybody got a voucher straightaway so they at least knew they had not lost their money.
“If they did not want the travel voucher for future use, they could reclaim the refunds by applying directly to us.
“All of those refunds were processed. Anybody who requested a refund has had it processed. There is no backlog whatsoever.”
If an airline cancels a flight, under European air passengers’ rights rules a full refund is due within a week.
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