Plane talk: make airlines toe the line on customer care to help identify failures

Primera Air was behaving badly when it came to compensating passengers – but so too do many other airlines

Primera Air collapse: Travel plans wrecked as passengers stranded

“Primera came to the rescue after I lost my job at Monarch exactly a year ago today and I’m so thankful, I had the time of my life there and I’ll never forget it.”

So wrote Loz from Cobham in Surrey, who has every right to feel extremely unlucky. She worked as cabin crew for Monarch until it collapsed in October 2017, then for Primera Air, which did the same 12 months later.

She and her colleagues want answers. Such as why, when Primera Air failed on 1 October, were staff as well as passengers left stranded in airports across North America and Europe?

“Worked on our days off just to keep the airline going. Just to be s*** on and left without a hotel room, flights or money, with crews stuck in Toronto, Washington, Boston, New York, Paris and Keflavik.”

The latter is the international airport near Reykjavik in Iceland, where Primera Air was created and owned.

“Ridiculous. And to top it off we didn’t get paid for September,” she writes.

Mark Platt, who runs the “Primera Air Victims” Facebook group, representing passengers, also wants answers. He has asked MPs on the Transport Select Committee to investigate what he calls a “system-wide failure of airports, regulators and media to properly scrutinise the carrier’s business model and operations”.

Had more of a light been shone on the budget airline, distressed passengers contend, fewer people would have booked and now be needing to try to recoup their losses – or still stuck abroad seeking some way home.

I shall leave the airports and regulators to speak for themselves, but allow me to respond as a member of the media.

The Independent took a close interest in Primera Air when last year it announced an ambitious network from the UK to the Mediterranean and, more importantly, North America.

The untested model of a budget airline deploying narrow-bodied jets between major airports across the Atlantic was potentially a welcome addition to travellers’ choice.

But the carrier’s erratic behaviour was also a concern – promising then abruptly cancelling new routes, and latterly announcing a schedule of 2019 flights that seemed way beyond the capabilities of the fleet.

It was difficult to reconcile the heavy costs Primera Air was evidently incurring, for example for chartering replacement aircraft and crew, with the very low fares it was charging.

Conversely, though, all new routes take time to pay off, and for all anyone knew the airline had deep pockets.

As a privately owned firm, Primera Air did not release the usual operational and financial data that publicly quoted airlines must publish. But as an airline experiencing extreme disruption, it created many unhappy passengers.

A typical story involved a last-minute cancellation, with the affected passengers told to book with another airline and claim back the cost – along with incidental expenses such as hotels and meals.

This is at odds with the European air passengers’ rights rules: the EC261 regulations require a cancelling airline to provide an alternative flight, book and pay for hotel rooms and meals, and arrange transport to and from the airport.

Yet time and again these stipulations are ignored. So it would have been unfair to single out Primera Air as failing to meet its obligations when much larger, highly profitable airlines were doing exactly the same.

Some passengers reported waiting many months for a refund from Primera Air, which now will never arrive. Yet again, I get plenty of complaints from travellers with big airlines who also report responses as lamentably slow.

Right now, were I to warn against travel on all the airlines who appear to disregard their statutory obligations on care and compensation, it would leave very few options.

But were regulators to decide to enforce the rules, it would be much easier to “name and shame” offenders who lack the cash – rather than just the inclination – to pay up promptly.

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