House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Wednesday 28 March 2007
MR SIMON EVANS and MS TINA TIETJEN
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Transport Committee
on Wednesday 28 March 2007
Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody, in the Chair
Mr David Clelland
Mrs Louise Ellman
Mr Lee Scott
Memorandum submitted by the Air Transport Users' Council
Witnesses: Ms Tina Tietjen, Chairman, and Mr Simon Evans, Chief Executive, Air Transport Users' Council, gave evidence.
Chairman: Good afternoon. I am delighted to see you here this afternoon. Members having an interest to declare? Mr Clelland?
Mr Clelland: I am a member of Amicus.
Clive Efford: I am a member of the Transport and General Workers' Union.
Chairman: Gwyneth Dunwoody, ASLEF.
Mrs Ellman: I am a member of the Transport and General Workers' Union.
Q1 Chairman: Could I ask you to identify yourselves for the record?
Mr Evans: I am Simon Evans, chief executive of the Air Transport Users' Council.
Ms Tietjen: I am Tina Tietjen. I am the chairman.
Q2 Chairman: Could I ask either of you if you have something you want to say to the Committee before we begin?
Ms Tietjen: We have provided you with a paper and I think on that basis hopefully we have put some points to you. We do not want to add anything at this stage. We are obviously delighted (a) to be here and (b) to take your questions.
Q3 Chairman: Has the level of complaints that you have received about air travel gone up or down in recent years?
Ms Tietjen: Significantly up.
Q4 Chairman: Are they mainly about airports or airlines?
Ms Tietjen: It is to do with the passenger experience in total, primarily fuelled in the last couple of years by delayed boarding.
Mr Evans: They are predominantly against airlines though because it is with the airline that the passenger has a contract. Typically, passengers are coming to us when they have lost money. They are looking for compensation and they have exhausted all other avenues so we get very few complaints directly against airports.
Q5 Chairman: Presumably that is because there is an agreed way of complaining against an airport, do you think, or is it just that the passenger automatically identifies the airline as being responsible for most of the problems?
Mr Evans: I think it is mostly the latter, primarily because most of the things about which they would pursue a grievance are things that happen whilst in the care of the airline. I suspect some of the things that exercise them at airports like queue times and the toilets being dirty they might write to the airport about but they are not really looking for compensation. Having had an apology perhaps or an explanation, they choose not to take it any further.
Q6 Chairman: Have you noticed any change in the type of complaint over the last two years?
Mr Evans: Not the type so much but certainly the way they divide up and proportionately with delays and cancellations the numbers of complaints in those categories have increased significantly. I think you are alluding to the denied boarding compensation regulation which came in in February 2005. That has resulted in a nearly four fold increase in complaints in total, so a significant increase in those categories.
Q7 Chairman: Do you think you are well publicised as an organisation? Do you think people know where you are and what you do?
Ms Tietjen: We attempt to be reasonably well publicised. Like all organisations I am sure we could perhaps have a higher profile. We are on links from certain airlines' websites.
Q8 Chairman: How many? Are they major airlines that are sufficiently confident to advertise your existence?
Ms Tietjen: British Airways?
Mr Evans: I do not think so. The only one I can think of that is a major carrier is Flybe. There is not a great incentive for them to advertise the organisation to which their passengers can complain. Since the regulation that we spoke about came into force in February, that is one of the contributors to the big increase in complaints to us because there is a requirement in that regulation for the airline to give passengers details, not only of their entitlements under the regulation but also of an organisation to which they can complain.
Q9 Chairman: Why do they not automatically put the link on their websites? Have you ever asked either the department or the airlines, "Why don't you do this?"?
Mr Evans: We have asked individual airlines and a number have said, "That is something we will go away and think about."
Q10 Clive Efford: Do you do any analysis of how people find out about you when they come to you?
Mr Evans: We do with our telephone advice line. In the last 12 months we have taken over 7,000 calls. Routinely, the team do ask people at the end of the call how they heard of us. Traditionally, we felt that we did not need a higher profile because people found us through the generic consumer organisations. They would come via a Citizens' Advice Bureau or a trading standards organisation. More recently, Consumer Direct is a very good source of general consumer information and there is an informal mechanism set up between the two of us. Also, increasingly people are finding us through our website or through other people's websites. Unfortunately, our database does not record us specifically. It just says, "Website".
Q11 Chairman: You think the access is good?
Mr Evans: Yes.
Q12 Mrs Ellman: Do you think that the internet has made purchasing tickets easier for customers?
Ms Tietjen: In principle it has made it easier for people to buy. We have certain concerns however around the area of taxes, fees and charges, where they are not shown as a gross amount at the outset on the ticket price.
Q13 Mrs Ellman: What are the particular concerns that you have identified?
Ms Tietjen: Sometimes the price shown when you first go in, as you may know, is net of taxes, fees and charges. It is only when you come to pay that the total price for the flight is therefore shown and the customer may make a decision to buy. Okay, they can still back out but they are a long way into the process at that stage.
Q14 Mrs Ellman: You have had some legal advice, have you not, suggesting that this is good practice or at least is not illegal? What is your assessment of that?
Mr Evans: The legal advice came from the Office of Fair Trading and the advice was that the practice was not in breach of consumer protection legislation, provided the passenger knew what the total price was before they committed themselves to purchase. We would have to concede that that is the case invariably. We were concerned even so at the prospect of enticement or entrapment, somebody being lured in by a very low headline fare committing themselves psychologically to a trip and ending up paying a lot more. Another concern was that they simply would not shop around because of the time it takes to go through websites. A bigger concern was that, in the fees and charges that are separated out on airline websites, there are subliminal inferences by the airlines that these are charges levied by a third party over which we the airline have no control and you are going to have to pay them anyway. The truth is that they vary on individual routes between carriers and that was our particular concern. We did some research that showed that point very forcibly. One particular example was the Gatwick/Amsterdam route. We had to choose the same airports because as you know charges are different at different airports. On that route we found that two airlines had quite similar headline fares but the taxes, fees and charges when you got to the end of the process for one were four times as much as the other. One was £10 and one was £40.
Q15 Chairman: We are going to name names, are we not, Mr Evans?
Mr Evans: The two carriers were Easyjet and British Airways. The carrier with £10 added on was Easyjet and the carrier with £40 added on was British Airways. Neither was doing anything illegally against the particular consumer legislation but our concern was that people logging on to the BA website, for example, would think if they had looked at the Easyjet website that the fares were pretty much the same. "I will make my decision on other bases like the schedule might be preferable to me or the service might be more to my preference" assuming that the add-on charges were going to be the same between the two carriers.
Q16 Mrs Ellman: What action have you taken as a public consumer representative body on this? If it is not illegal you might not be able to change it but what have you done to try and do something about it?
Ms Tietjen: We have published our report. We have lobbied various airlines. Simon Evans particularly has done a huge amount of media work around this to try to both draw individual consumers' attention to this fact, that they need to be more discerning in their purchasing, and also to pressure for change. We have been successful in a couple of instances.
Mr Evans: We claim credit for having brought this issue to the attention of the European Commission. The issue of pricing is featured in heir review of the fare package which I know you have discussed in other Committee meetings. It is there as a live issue at the moment. We also have some hope possibly coming out of the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive which is not air transport specific, obviously. This is a Directive which is not yet implemented in the UK but it does include provisions on pricing and it does talk about consumers being offered a fully inclusive price but there is a caveat, which is that unless there is a difficulty for the supplier ----
Q17 Chairman: That is precise, is it not? They must do it unless they do not have to do it?
Mr Evans: Exactly.
Q18 Chairman: It sounds like a really useful bit of legislation.
Mr Evans: They do not have to do it if they do not know what the final price is going to be. I think there is a caveat there for the airlines.
Chairman: If the moon is in the wrong quarter? I can see it is going to be really useful.
Q19 Mrs Ellman: Is there any airline you could name as conducting good practice?
Mr Evans: British Airways. They did change their policy following our review and they told us it is because of what we have done. Virgin does too. Quite a few of the major network carriers are giving fully inclusive pricing. It is interesting that those who have resisted it so far are predominantly the low cost carriers.
Q20 Mrs Ellman: Do you think they are likely to change unless they are forced to?
Ms Tietjen: Probably not.
Q21 Mrs Ellman: What about charges on passengers making telephone reservations? Is that normal?
Mr Evans: It is becoming increasingly common. There is an issue that we have taken up with a couple of airlines, specifically because there is a point at which we have to decide whether we are interfering in the market and fighting yesterday's battles. The issue has been: can these charges be avoided? Can you log onto the internet? Can you get somebody else to buy over the internet for you? We have come across a few examples where you cannot avoid these telephone charges if you want to book with this airline. I think it was Nigeria, a West African country, because of credit card problems. The airlines will only take a reservation over the telephone and you have to pay £15 for the privilege. If you buy a gift voucher and give it to your family to travel on an airline, you will probably find they can only redeem the gift voucher by telephone and it will cost £25 or £15. We do not like that.
Q22 Mrs Ellman: Are people aware they are being charged?
Mr Evans: They are. The question is whether they are being told they can avoid the charge by booking somewhere else. I suppose on things like gift vouchers unfortunately they are probably not.
Q23 Mrs Ellman: Is that a general practice in gift vouchers?
Mr Evans: We have only come across it with two airlines.
Q24 Chairman: Who are?
Mr Evans: British Airways and Easyjet. I think BA has a flat rate charge and Easyjet has a premium rate which you can call at. We only became aware of it when a complainant told us it cost her £12.50 to redeem her £20 voucher.
Q25 Mrs Ellman: Are there any other examples of hidden charges that you could tell us about?
Mr Evans: Credit card and debit card charges. It is not a question so much of whether they are hidden but whether they are sufficiently prominent for you to realise that you are committing to these. There is a practice of having been offered a shopping basket of things like insurance or priority boarding where you have to deselect which, of course, is a practice that is not unique to air travel, but it is something that we would prefer were the other way around so that you were offered these things and you actively chose to include them in your purchase.
Q26 Mr Scott: What kind of complaints do you receive from disabled passengers or those with special needs?
Ms Tietjen: In total in 2006/7 to date we have had 56 complaints.
Q27 Mr Scott: What kind of complaints?
Ms Tietjen: They range across not getting their prebooked seat to, "My insulin froze in the hold" to the cost of oxygen, to having a stiff leg and not being given special treatment, to no provision for a minor and "Asked for a priority seat but did not get one. Suffered from panic attack." They are very random items.
Q28 Mr Scott: Would you say the complaints are going up or down?
Mr Evans: They are going down. We had 79 last year. You may have gathered from the list that Tina gave you that the numbers are so small proportionate to the total complaints - 56 out of over 6,000 - that we have not even broken down separate categories. We have a special needs category and a special need could be anything. Somebody could have made a special request or paid for it so it could be a vegetarian meal, for example. We get very few complaints from disabled people who have been treated poorly or uncivilly by either airport or airline.
Q29 Mr Scott: What about some of the report that a certain airline charges for wheelchair use, et cetera?
Mr Evans: The airline will take four wheelchair passengers maximum per flight. It does not charge passengers who use their own wheelchairs and who have somebody with them to push the wheelchair. It does not provide wheelchairs so the passengers then have to go to a third party provider that does charge for the wheelchair push to the aircraft.
Q30 Mr Scott: You have had complaints about that?
Mr Evans: We have, yes.
Q31 Chairman: That airline is?
Mr Evans: That is Ryan Air and there was a court case with Ryan Air and BAA. They were found co-responsible by the court and they have now changed their practices at Stansted Airport, which was the airport in question. Ryan Air now put on a wheelchair levy which raises the levels for all passengers who fly Ryan Air.
Q32 Mr Scott: How much is that?
Mr Evans: It has crept up gradually over time. I think it is about £2.50 now.
Ms Tietjen: That is across all passengers.
Q33 Chairman: Do they make that clear? Do they state specifically, "This charge is across the whole plane in order to accommodate ..."?
Mr Evans: No, they do not provide the background. At the end of the process you see your total fare. You see the fare that you thought you were going to pay and then you see the passenger service charge, security and a wheelchair levy with no explanation.
Q34 Chairman: When you asked the OFT about this question of clarity of fares and where the extras were advertised, did they take account of that sort of practice, which seems to me to be pretty sharp practice?
Mr Evans: Yes, they did, and we discussed it with them.
Q35 Chairman: Their definition was still that as long as eventually people were told that was perfectly legitimate?
Mr Evans: Yes.
Q36 Mr Scott: We recently at another session had some witnesses who were telling us that you could get a particular fare. I think it was £199. After the meeting I went to try to find that fare with no success whatsoever, surprisingly enough. I cannot think why. Do you have many complaints where the fare advertised is virtually impossible to get or maybe there are only one or two available?
Mr Evans: No, not any more.
Q37 Mr Scott: I must put a complaint in to you then.
Mr Evans: Please do. We will deal with it in the normal way. We did previously, before the internet. The internet has been very good at facilitating access to those lower fares.
Q38 Mr Clelland: Can I ask you about mishandled baggage? What proportion of UK travellers whose baggage goes missing are adequately compensated under the Montreal Convention?
Ms Tietjen: In terms of complaints to date the baggage complaints are way over 12 per cent.
Q39 Mr Clelland: What proportion are adequately compensated under the Montreal Convention?
Mr Evans: We only see those people who come to us, not having received satisfaction. Of those that we have, I do not have a breakdown on the baggage issue particularly. We could find it for you. The Montreal Convention really only provides for reimbursement of necessarily incurred expenses. People who have kept their expenditure modest whilst they were waiting for their delayed bag to be delivered tend to be the more successful ones in getting all of their money back from the airline. There is no provision for compensation to make you feel better or because of the stress you have suffered. A particular area of concern is when a bag is lost and is never seen again, which is less frequent an occurrence than it used to be because of radio tracking, for example. The Montreal Convention has a limit of about £800 which, if you added up the contents of a typical suitcase, would not cover replacement. Also, airlines are placing in there hurdles of burdens of proof, like insurance companies have. I think the answer to your question is probably a very small proportion of passengers whose bags have been lost are getting anything near replacement value. Those who are just looking for reimbursement of expenses whilst they waited for the bag to turn up probably fare better.
Q40 Mr Clelland: The dissatisfaction rate is rising, is it?
Mr Evans: Yes.
Q41 Mr Clelland: What has been done to try and address that problem?
Mr Evans: It has been perennial, something that we have spoken to airlines many times about over the years. We were indeed amongst those who had been arguing for a long time for a replacement of the previous Warsaw Convention, which had even lower limits for baggage, so we have had progress since 2001. It is something that the AUC is working on at the moment. We are in discussion with airlines, the thesis being that they have very good mechanisms in place for tracing missing bags. They know their procedures for what they will do to reimburse you or to provide you with assistance whilst you wait, but we do not think they are doing enough to stop bags going missing in the first place.
Q42 Mr Clelland: So far as the procedures for dealing with lost and mishandled baggage by airlines and the airport procedures, you feel these are not yet adequate?
Mr Evans: Dealing with mishandled is probably okay. It is before they become mishandled where there is the problem. We think they should be looking more at whether they can prevent bags being mishandled. My view is that people working in the baggage tracing and dealing with the complaints have become slightly inured to the human element of what happens when a bag goes missing. They are dealing with these things all the time. We are doing some work at the moment which will be published fairly soon, trying to use what information is publicly available on statistics - and there is not enough, which plays into another area of work we have been looking at for a long time, which is performance indicators, which we think the European Commission should produce. Based solely on figures produced by the Association of European Airlines, which has only 24 members, they are mishandling over five million bags a year. If you attempt to extrapolate that in terms of the numbers of airlines worldwide, it seems to us there is a problem and the industry ought to be thinking about doing more about it.
Q43 Mr Clelland: Do you think there are enough baggage handlers? Are they properly trained?
Mr Evans: That could be part of the problem. We have not gone into that much detail with them. That is the challenge to the airlines, to consider whether their contracts are too tough with the handlers and the contractors who take the business cannot provide the level of service that their customers deserve.
Ms Tietjen: There may also be some technology that could be used too at the front end to stop the problem occurring down the line.
Q44 Clive Efford: Is the EU denied boarding regulation working? What are the main difficulties?
Mr Evans: It was a big step forward for the AUC in terms of dealing with complaints and I hope by extension that applies to other passengers. The first time we had a piece of legislation which was more administrative than the Montreal Convention, for example, where there were burdens of proof and you could only enforce it through the courts, here is a regulation that says, "Under these circumstances, an airline should do X, Y and Z for you." It is a big step forward in making sure passengers are not out of pocket as a result of disruption. Where previously it was in the airlines' discretion whether to put them up in a hotel, whether to provide them with meals, whether to give them refreshments and so on, now there is a regulation where you can say, "If you did not, you should have done." In that respect, I think it is working. It is not working in respect of the areas in the regulation where there are ambiguities or a lack of definition of some key terms, which makes it very difficult to enforce because you cannot enforce something if it is not legally clear what the airline must be doing.
Q45 Clive Efford: How did the European Commission's information that was published assist in dealing with the ambiguities?
Mr Evans: It most certainly did not assist. It created additional problems because it was in itself ambiguous. There were two particular areas. It led people to believe they would get compensation when they were not entitled to it. There is a distinction between compensation and right to care or reimbursement of expenses. There was also a difficulty over the provision for a five hour delay because, if you are subject to a delay of five hours or more, the entitlement is either to wait for the delayed flight and get the refreshments and hotel accommodation that you should get whilst you wait or to choose not to fly and get your money back. The information leaflets led people to believe that they should get both.
Q46 Clive Efford: Did the European Commission accept that they were wrong when you pointed it out, in spite of the fact that they did not withdraw their information and wait for the Ombudsman's decision? Did they accept that their information was misleading and wrong?
Mr Evans: After a struggle, they did. Three or four months ago they circulated to national enforcement bodies - AUC is not a national enforcement body but we are a body nominated to handle complaints - a draft clarification for us to comment on. This was to go on their website. We did comment on it because it was wrong after all that time.
Q47 Chairman: The draft clarification was wrong?
Mr Evans: Yes.
Ms Tietjen: It only came out a few months ago.
Q48 Chairman: That is helpful. Are we back to a draft clarification of the clarification in 27 languages?
Mr Evans: There were two elements. There was a poster which was posted at airports and there was an information leaflet which was handed around Europe like confetti.
Q49 Chairman: And they were both wrong?
Mr Evans: Yes. The poster is being revised. We have been invited to comment on the poster, but they have said they have no plans to revise the leaflet. Of course, you cannot withdraw leaflets that have been ----
Q50 Chairman: Simply being wrong is not a problem for the Commission because they are so often.
Mr Evans: No comment.
Q51 Clive Efford: Do you have evidence that airlines are not living up to their obligations under the regulation?
Mr Evans: Yes. There is evidence in the sense of one-off problems at an airport or management problems. The airline cannot be looking over the shoulder of every bag handling agent all of the time. We deal with those on a case by case basis. There is more serious evidence where we have teased out from airlines through letters from their lawyers, for example, that they not complying. It is company policy to apply the regulation in a particular way.
Q52 Clive Efford: Should they be forced to comply?
Mr Evans: Yes, they should.
Q53 Clive Efford: What can be done to do that?
Mr Evans: The mechanism is a referral from the AUC to the Civil Aviation Authority. We have a pretty good strike rate ourselves in terms of writing escalated letters. Obviously, we deal with them on a case by case basis first, getting undertakings that they will change. There are some that we refer formally to the CAA and they have a pretty good track record as well informally. I make the distinction between discussion with airlines and taking airlines to court. There are some cases continuing which may or may not result in some sort of civil action later on.
Q54 Clive Efford: On the taxes, fees and charges issue, is there any way other than naming and shaming by an organisation like yourselves to make sure that prices that passengers are quoted, that attract them into a transaction, are comparative? Is there any regulation that you envisage that might resolve that problem?
Mr Evans: Are comparative?
Q55 Clive Efford: We have evidence that there are different charges that are charged at different rates. In order to ensure that customers are able to make fair comparisons, is there anything that can be done to ensure that they get that information and, at a certain point in the transaction, they are clear about all of the charges they are likely to incur?
Ms Tietjen: The clearest way to achieve that would be to ensure that prices quoted at the outset are rolled up prices.
Q56 Clive Efford: Is that something you feel might require regulation or is that something that can only be done by naming, shaming and encouraging companies to act more reasonably?
Mr Evans: I was asked earlier on whether we had had any success and we did have success with British Airways. A couple of others have fallen into line. There obviously is scope for voluntary action but the answer to your question is yes, I think we need regulation which is what we want and which we are hoping to see in the review of the fare package. These are the three bits of European legislation, the completed liberalisation of the European market. There is discussion now about pricing and we hope that included in that regulation will be a provision that airlines must quote fully inclusive prices.
Q57 Clive Efford: Are there telephone booking charges and how much do they vary?
Mr Evans: We have not done a survey on telephone booking charges. The only ones we have come across are those that have come through complaints. The differences would be flat rate charges or using a premium rate telephone line. When we discuss with the carriers about the premium telephone lines, they assure us they are all complying with ICSTIS guidelines on using premium rate lines.
Q58 Clive Efford: We all know about ICSTIS guidelines, do we not? Is there a problem with airlines not telling customers about the charges they may incur by booking over the phone?
Mr Evans: ICSTIS guidelines require the user of a service to tell the person that they are speaking on a premium rate line. That is generic. That is sometimes the discussion we need to have, whether we have a remedy in generic legislation or consumer protection legislation, or whether we need to be calling for something specific for air transport.
Q59 Clive Efford: When you go on to the internet, there are a number of consumer sites if you want to get a mortgage, a credit card or an electricity supplier. You can do a comparative costing. You can even do it for supplying green energy. Is there anything comparative on the internet for airlines? Should Opodo or any of the other websites be offering that service?
Mr Evans: There are websites that scan the individual airline websites and provide you with your choices.
Q60 Clive Efford: Do they have the same consumer information that you might get from somebody doing comparative costs of credit cards? This is the cheapest; this is the best value for money; these are the hidden costs?
Ms Tietjen: No.
Q61 Clive Efford: Should some of these websites that make money out of selling tickets and booking on line be providing that service and making it clear to customers?
Ms Tietjen: That is a commercial decision, is it not, rather than a legislative decision, I suspect?
Q62 Clive Efford: You represent consumers. Do you think consumers would be better served if they did that?
Ms Tietjen: Some of those sites do not trawl all providers as well so people need to be aware of that. When you go into, say, Opodo as you just mentioned, you may not necessarily get a trawl of all carriers going from and to the locations that you are asking about.
Q63 Clive Efford: Are you concerned that they might give the impression that they do do a trawl of the available carriers?
Ms Tietjen: I suspect some potential customers may believe they are getting the choice. On the other hand, to a partially informed consumer, they would soon see that they are not necessarily getting no frills carriers turning up on those sites.
Q64 Clive Efford: Why were you so reticent in answering that question?
Ms Tietjen: I am not. I was just trying to think of a way of explaining it.
Q65 Clive Efford: If you are the representatives of the consumer, surely you should be outraged that people might be misled.
Ms Tietjen: I could not disagree with you that people should be able to see. We have said quite categorically we would like people to be able to go on the internet and get rolled up pricing so they do not wait until they have got a long way down the decision tree before they see what it is going to cost. Also, depending upon how close it is to travel, they may tip over a time zone and start the process again, ending up at a higher cost.
Q66 Chairman: You did give us some evidence about disruptive passengers, who do not seem to be the largest part of your complaints. You did say that in some cases involving disruptive passengers the cabin crew might be over-reacting. What exactly did you mean?
Mr Evans: We have had one or two cases where, on the face of it, it looks like the passenger had a legitimate concern and the cabin crew have told them they are a disruptive passenger and they have been met by police at the other end of the service. That is the issue that raises some sort of concern. The difficulty of course is that you were not there and you try to get both sides of the argument. It is a dilemma for us in the sense that of course we support all attempts to stamp out disruptive behaviour on flights, but we suspect there have been a few cases that have come to our attention where possibly there is a bit too much machismo in the cabin crew and the passenger was not being disruptive, or at least did not start off being disruptive but was frustrated when trying to air a legitimate grievance. Doing what we all think is the right thing to do is to try to get the grievance sorted at the time rather than just whinging about it later.
Q67 Chairman: You do say in your written evidence that a culture could develop where any passenger who makes a legitimate complaint may be considered to be disruptive. Why do you think that?
Mr Evans: The concern there was the robust way in which the airlines have supported their staff in these examples. Again, we are not there so we do not see what happens. It appears as if there might be an unwillingness even to consider that this passenger was not being disruptive and that possibly the cabin crew did over-react. There were a couple of complaints around the time when this was an issue that was being aired very publicly a few years ago where that was a concern but the numbers have gone down. We had 35 of 6,000 classified as disruptive and a lot of those will have been disruptive passengers who had been refused boarding to a flight and came to us as a referee.
Q68 Chairman: Am I right in saying that what concerns you really is the fact that people do not know you exist and you are still trying to make sure they do? Do you have a large enough budget for advertising your existence?
Mr Evans: It is not so much a budget for advertising our existence; it is a budget for dealing with the response.
Q69 Chairman: That must be part of it but if people do not know you are there it is a little difficult for them to seek your support, is it not?
Mr Evans: I am not sure they do not know we are here. I think most people who need us can find us. Those people who have been subjected to disruption at airports are getting the notice with our contact details. The internet is a very good way of people coming to us. If you type in "air passenger complaints", we come up pretty high on the list and people have always found us through the generic consumer sites. Consumer Direct is one telephone number for any consumer complaint and we are on the list of organisations to which Consumer Direct can refer people.
Q70 Mr Clelland: Have you had an increased number of complaints from British Airways passengers about the change in their baggage policy?
Mr Evans: It is probably too soon to know about that.
Q71 Chairman: That comes in in the autumn?
Mr Evans: They postponed it, yes.
Q72 Chairman: People have not been caught by this yet. Has anybody pointed out to you that there might be a problem for British Airways with the suggestion that they have a thing called "fast drop"? Having got booked in by using my own computer, being told all I have to do is turn up and leave my bag with fast drop, I came to the conclusion that fast drop could be renamed "very tortoise-like, slow and probably rather difficult drop".
Mr Evans: British Airways tell us they know they have a problem.
Chairman: They have lovely people who run up and down and explain to you why you are in trouble but it still is not exactly a fast drop. Thank you very much.
(The Committee suspended from 4.22pm to 4.32pm for a division in the House)
Witnesses: Mr David Marshall, Head of Policy and Communications, Mr Simon Bunce, Head of Legal and Member Services, and Ms Susan Parsons, Trade Relations Manager, Association of British Travel Agents, gave evidence.
Q73 Chairman: It is very good of you to come this afternoon. Would you be kind enough to tell us your names and occupations?
Ms Parsons: Susan Parsons, manager, trade relations.
Mr Bunce: Simon Bunce, head of legal and member services.
Mr Marshall: David Marshall, head of policy and communications at ABTA.
Q74 Chairman: Does anybody have anything they want to say before we begin?
Mr Marshall: I would like to give you a little background on ABTA. We are an organisation that is just over 50 years old. We are the largest UK trade/travel organisation. We have over 1,600 members and over 6,000 retail outlets in the UK. This goes the whole spectrum of business in terms of family organisations that act for travel agents in your high street to the large multinationals in terms of the big four at the moment, Thompson Tui, Thomas Cook, My Travel and First Choice. We would also like this afternoon if we could to talk about financial protection if you could give us an opportunity.
Q75 Chairman: What is the relationship that ABTA has and ABTA members have with airlines?
Ms Parsons: We meet with the airlines on a variety of different subjects. It is not just the airline/agent relationship in commercial terms for day to day business. We also cooperate very much with them on a number of the subjects which have already come up today: denied boarding compensation. We talked a lot about the disabilities. We work very closely with them on airport related issues - for example, security and baggage. Latterly, we have done a lot of work with them on the advanced passenger information which certain overseas governments require when passengers fly there - for example, the USA. It is very much cooperation.
Q76 Chairman: Is that all airlines?
Ms Parsons: Very much so British carriers, British Airways, BMI, Virgin and Flybe. We also talk to Easyjet. The charter airlines belong to ABTA members so we have a very good relationship with them. In so far as the foreign airlines are concerned, it is mostly done through the auspices of IATA and through the Board of Airline Representatives in the UK. Yes, we do talk to them about a great many subjects but we also exchange words with them on things which we are not so happy about either.
Mr Bunce: As far as the members are concerned and their relationship with the airlines, if you are a travel agent, you will be acting as an agent for the airlines when you are selling their tickets and that will generally be done through the IATA system. Our tour operator members will have commercial relationships with airlines where they buy in seats from the airlines to make up part of the holiday that they are then putting together as a package.
Q77 Chairman: Of course there is a difference between the relationship of big brother and small brother, is there not?
Mr Bunce: Absolutely.
Q78 Chairman: That must influence some of the dealings, must it not?
Mr Bunce: As far as the agency relationship is concerned, the agents are typically the small brother in that relationship. With regard to the tour operations, that can vary. There are some very large tour operators out there who will have a very good commercial position vis a vis their airline suppliers. Again, you have a lot of small tour operators as well who are putting together their programmes using whatever seats they can get. If they are on the larger carriers, clearly there is a commercial imbalance there.
Q79 Chairman: How do travellers who book through an ABTA member benefit from the relationship?
Ms Parsons: In so far as airlines are concerned?
Q80 Chairman: Generally. If I booked through you as opposed to going direct to an airline, what would my benefits be?
Mr Bunce: The main benefit you get is the selection of services on offer. If you go direct to the British Airways website, you will get a British Airways flight. You will not be offered anything else. If you go to a travel agent and say, "I want to fly to Germany", you will be given a full range of options and you can choose from the level of service you want.
Q81 Chairman: I do not want to rain on your parade but when this Committee took evidence about the booking systems - how can I put this tactfully? - there was some very clear indication that the bookings at the top of the page were going to be given precedence by people who were not going to necessarily want to scroll through all the alternatives all the way down. Although I am delighted to have you say that the agents will routinely give me all the evidence I want, that was not what we found when we looked at the way that both airlines and agents handle the booking system. You are assuring me that that is the case? If I go into the middle of Crewe and ask for a cheap flight to Amsterdam, you are assuring me that I would be offered all the alternative flights that would be available?
Mr Bunce: You will certainly get offered a lot more selection than if you go to the British Airways website.
Q82 Chairman: That was not what I asked you, was it? I am not trying to decry the service given by your members because obviously the whole point of having somebody who knows about airlines is that they will give me accurate information. You and I both know that reservation systems can be manoeuvred both by airlines and by agents. Are you telling me that in fact I would get a very wide choice, the widest choice, from an agent because they would look through all of these alternatives?
Mr Bunce: You may not get every single alternative that is available in the market, but you will be offered those that are available on the GDS. You will be offered the no frills carriers which will not be on the GDS.
Q83 Chairman: We are not using initials in this Committee.
Mr Bunce: The Global Distribution System. A travel agent has access to the flights through the IATA system, through the Global Distribution System. They have access to no frills carriers on their own websites. They have access to charter flights. It is not an ideal, complete, perfect, competitive situation but you will get a selection there which you are not going to get if you go direct on to an airline's website.
Q84 Chairman: You are saying it would be exponentially different?
Mr Bunce: Yes.
Q85 Clive Efford: What role does an agent play in helping a customer understand an airline's baggage policy?
Ms Parsons: The baggage policies up until fairly recently have been fairly standard with the vast majority of airlines offering 20 or 23 kilos on international routes with the exception of those where a two piece concept is practised - for example, north America, the Caribbean, Mexico, Brazil and Nigeria. It is fairly easy for an agent to explain those but due to commercial pressures there have been some changes in recent years. For example, some airlines have offered an increased baggage allowance particularly to those passengers who are paying more and travelling in premium classes. Latterly, some of the no frills airlines have decided they are going to charge for checked in baggage. Whilst the baggage allowance should be clearly shown on the itinerary or the ticket, we would always expect an agent to point it out. Virtually every airline has it shown clearly on their website so there should not be any problems. In so far as hand baggage is concerned, there have been quite a lot of changes since the 10 August terrorism threats last year. The baggage allowance was radically reduced. People were only allowed one piece of baggage. That is still the case but the size of the baggage has increased a little and people are allowed to have certain liquids, but only in 100ml bottles. It is the role of the travel agent to explain that. We have a weekly e-mail bulletin which we put out to our members and this is the sort of thing which we routinely advise them of so that they can properly advise their passengers so that they know what they can take and there is not a situation where they might then be required to put it in the hold when they get to the airport.
Q86 Clive Efford: Given the length of your answer, has it become more or less easy to explain baggage policies? What are the reasons for the changes and what problems does that cause for your members?
Ms Parsons: Because of the complex system now with commercial practices taking effect, it has become more complicated but members will always do their best to explain.
Q87 Clive Efford: Is there anything that you feel as an organisation can be done to make it easier or do you think this is just something that is an inevitability of the market place?
Ms Parsons: In an ideal world it would be wonderful to have sound practices. It is very difficult though because sometimes the aircraft types which are used differ. It might not be possible to, for example, allow a full 20 kilos of baggage on a very small aircraft. What would be very helpful however would be a standard for hand baggage globally. There is a standard within the EU but unfortunately that does get interpreted differently from EU country to EU country and certainly there are complaints about passengers arriving with duty free which they have purchased airside in another airport. They are transiting London and they are not allowed to take it on because it gets confiscated. We would very much like to see a global standard. I do not know how possible that is. Whatever influence the Committee could use would be really helpful. That has also caused quite a lot of problems in terms of security. You will recall that after the 10 August incident last year the Department for Transport immediately introduced much more stringent controls on hand baggage and that did result in quite a lot of queues for x-rays. Whilst the airports have put in more resources and tried to put in more x-ray lines, it is insufficient and we would like to see that greatly improved so that people do not have to queue. It is probably one of the biggest problems. People say, "I am going on holiday but I have to go through the airport and queue." Any support which could be given to try to make quite sure that the proper resources are deployed at airports would be really helpful.
Q88 Clive Efford: To be clear about the additional hand luggage as a consequence of people buying duty free, is that something that the airlines are imposing themselves or is that something that they are saying has been imposed on them as a consequence of security, that you cannot carry extra hand luggage in the form of duty free that you have picked up en route?
Ms Parsons: My understanding is that it is the airports rather than the airlines.
Q89 Clive Efford: On BA's intended changes to their baggage policy, have you had any discussions with them?
Ms Parsons: A lot. They were going to introduce it last year but because of the 10 August they decided to postpone it. They recently announced it. I do not think their timing was very good and their communication about it was not very good either. They have backed down. It is supposedly coming in in the autumn. They changed their international baggage allowance to 23 kilos probably about a year or so back so it is not necessarily going to make a lot of difference to a lot of the passengers. Where they do have the two piece concept in the countries I have already mentioned the reduction is from 32 to 23 kilos. British Airways say that it will be a very small number of their passengers who are affected because most of them are well within their limits, but I think it is too early to tell. We certainly have not had any complaints about it.
Q90 Clive Efford: Do your members have a role in communicating to customers about any compensation that they might be entitled to in the case of a cancellation? Do you communicate with anyone who may have suffered a cancellation about what they might be entitled to? Do you give advice about that?
Ms Parsons: You are talking about denied boarding compensation?
Q91 Clive Efford: Yes.
Ms Parsons: Yes, we do. We have kept our members fully informed when the revised regulation came into effect in February last year and we have given our members access to all the websites so that they are clearly aware as to what amounts of compensation might become due in the event of a flight being cancelled. As previously mentioned, there is no compensation for delayed flights.
Q92 Clive Efford: When the new regulation details were first published by the European Commission and they contained misleading information, were your members affected by this?
Ms Parsons: The tour operators running the charter airlines were very affected because of the posters which were put up in airports, mostly abroad I have to say, and people thought that if there was a delay they would also be entitled to compensation which of course is not the case. As the AUC has already pointed out, the posters are being redrafted. We have seen a draft very recently. They are still possibly far from perfect and they could be misleading.
Mr Bunce: The regulations themselves are very complicated. The way that they were implemented was complicated and the information that went out was wrong. There was just a huge amount of confusion when these regulations came in. There still is a lot of confusion about it. We do get a lot of calls from our members who are faced with these situations where their clients have been delayed, asking us whether they are entitled to compensation. It has been handled very badly.
Q93 Chairman: What is the legal situation under the Trade Descriptions Act if the Commission are insisting on inaccurate information being published in British airports? Could I then sue them?
Mr Bunce: I do not think you can because you are not actually suffering any loss. You are being misled into believing that you have a right to compensation which legally you do not have. If it were the other way round where they were telling you that you were not entitled to compensation that you were entitled to, you might pursue a claim.
Q94 Chairman: Surely my personal inconvenience being irritated should be a suitable reason for suing them, should it not?
Mr Bunce: I wish you all the best luck in pursuing the European Commission through the courts.
Q95 Chairman: Is that bad drafting? When you say it is very complicated, that is a polite way of putting it. Is it bad drafting or is the Commission trying to talk up regulations that do not have any teeth?
Mr Bunce: From a consumer point of view, the regulations are very good.
Q96 Chairman: They cannot be very good if they mislead me, can they?
Mr Bunce: It is not the regulations that mislead you. It is the posters that they put up to explain what the regulations do that mislead you. They have a fairly complicated set of regulations and they have tried to distil that down to a few sound bites. If you do that, you lose some of the meaning.
Q97 Chairman: It is poor drafting on their part, their inability to précis their own regulations?
Mr Bunce: That is right.
Q98 Chairman: Their problems with language?
Mr Bunce: Yes.
Q99 Mrs Ellman: Do your members have a code saying when they should inform customers about the complete cost of the fares they want to book, including all taxes and any other charges?
Mr Bunce: Yes. We have our code of conduct which has been in place for many years and it has always included a provision that the price advertised, the basic price shown to consumers, should include all non-optional costs of a fixed amount. That wording mirrors the code of practice issued by the DTI in respect of the Consumer Protection Act. I was interested to hear the answers given by Mr Evans from the AUC about his discussions with the Office of Fair Trading on this. If I can give you a little history, if we go back 15 years or so, we had a completely different market in travel. The airlines were over here selling their scheduled seats to business travellers and the tour operators were over here selling their package holidays. The two did not come into contact very often. At that time, it was very common practice for the airlines to show prices exclusive of taxes and charges so you would get a £99 flight which would cost you £130 or something. Over time the market changed and suddenly the two sides of the industry were starting to come into competition with each other. Back in about 1996 air passenger duty was doubled and our members then really did feel that they were at a competitive disadvantage in the way that they were marketing their flights because they were including all the taxes in the basic price, the airlines were not, and so there was a marked disparity between the advertised prices. We had some lengthy discussions with the Office of Fair Trading at that time, and they very helpfully spoke to the airlines and the airlines started to advertise with the taxes included in the basic price, and that situation held good for a number of years. What then happened is a number of things came together: firstly the rise of the Internet and the no-frills carriers, and specifically Ryanair; and then September 11th, and following September 11th a number of airlines started adding on security charges to the basic cost of the flights where they said they were incurring additional costs for new security arrangements, so these were then taken out of the basic fare that the airlines were advertising. That then escalated, as I say, with Ryanair advertising very competitively and saying, "Here's a flight for a pound," which did not include any of the taxes. That really caused complete breakdown amongst the whole market because by that stage of course, into the 2000s and up to the current day, there is absolute direct competition between the airlines and the tour operators. It is all one leisure travel market now, and so if Ryanair are advertising exclusive of all these extra charges, then in order for our members to compete they have got to do the same thing. This has caused us some significant stress as an organisation in how we control our members under the Code of Conduct or indeed whether we do try and impose that on them under the Code of Conduct when we know that is going to absolutely impact on their ability to compete. As an organisation we would like to see all travel services advertised at a complete, all-inclusive price that shows the customer what they are going to pay and what they are going to get. We spoke to the Office of Fair Trading before Christmas about this and we reached a position with them where they said that they were minded to take action against travel companies in general in respect of their pricing. They were looking to us to impose our Code of Conduct on our members so that would deal with that side of the problem and we said, "That is fine, but we would expect you to take on non-ABTA companies and specifically airlines and specifically Ryanair and easyJet." We agreed that there are complications in doing it, in changing booking systems and websites and brochures, and so it was agreed that we would look at a three-month timetable which ends at the end of April, and we are working on our members to get them to change their websites to build in all the extra costs into the basic advertised price. We are working with them so that any brochures that they publish after the end of April will show inclusive pricing. I have asked the OFT for a progress report on how they are getting on with the airlines and they tell me that under the Enterprise Act they are not able to give me any details, but they are confident that they are working towards reaching a stage where everybody is going to be happy and on a competitive level, so to hear Mr Evans say that the Office of Fair Trading say that, no, all of this is completely legal, came as something of a surprise.
Q100 Chairman: Something of a shock I would think. Are you aware whether the United Kingdom Office of Fair Trading has any jurisdiction over Ryanair, which, after all, must be an Irish-based airline?
Mr Bunce: I do not know the answer to that. I think the fact that they are advertising and operating in the UK must give them some form of jurisdiction. Whether it is sufficient for them to be able to influence the advertising on the website I do not know.
Q101 Chairman: But as far as you are aware, the position that was outlined to you by the Office of Fair Trading just before Christmas still stands and you have no indication from them nor have you had in the intervening three months that they do not regard that as being a possibility and being something they intend to do?
Mr Bunce: No.
Q102 Chairman: And you would also assume that if your members do do as you have asked them and the Office of Fair Trading does not take action against the airlines, then in effect your members will be disadvantaged?
Mr Bunce: Absolutely, and we have made it very clear to the Office of Fair Trading that if we do not see significant progress on this within that time-frame we are going to be unable to prevent our members from competing.
Q103 Mrs Ellman: Could I just clarify, what do your members actually do now in relation to informing customers of the fare price?
Mr Bunce: If we look at the tour operator members, I have to say, by and large, most of them do advertise completely inclusive prices. It is a hangover from the good old days that most of them still do it and it is the preferred method of advertising. Those that do not will take out the taxes, take out any charges, and will look at other issues like fuel supplements where they might say, "We are not quite sure what the level of fuel is so we cannot price that into our basic price." That is the tour operators. On the travel agency side, and I think this touches on another point that was raised with the AUC, particularly on websites where travel agents are advertising a whole range of products, they pick that up information from certain software companies who do this scan of all the products that are available on the Internet but the information that travel agents get is only that which is put on by the actual supplier (the airline or the tour operator) so if that initial price is wrong then the price that shows up on the members' websites or on any of these price comparison websites is going to be wrong as well, it is not going to be including all of those extras, but the travel agent often is unable to know that until he drills down to make the booking when they all start popping up.
Q104 Mrs Ellman: Would the agent only find that out at the point of booking?
Mr Bunce: If the customer showed an interest in a particular product that is when all these things would come up. The customer would certainly know about it before they made the booking.
Q105 Mrs Ellman: At what point? Say a customer has expressed interest in a particular flight or a holiday, what would happen?
Ms Parsons: Can I give you an example. I looked yesterday at ebookers and I looked at Heathrow to New York, which turned out to be British Airways, in economy. The first price which came up was £380.40. That is the total price which a passenger would pay for that particular journey. As you go further into it, they will actually spell it out and they will tell you it is a £233 airfare plus £147.40 pence tax, so they do give you the price up-front because that is what the consumer wants to know prior to making the booking. The only possible extra at the end might be if there was a credit card charge, but that is an optional charge because virtually every on-line booking company will take debit cards, for which there is no charge.
Mr Bunce: That is how it should be done. The question you were asking, I think, is if it is not done like that at what stage does the customer know?
Q106 Mrs Ellman: At what point in the potential transaction does the customer become aware of this?
Mr Bunce: It is quite a long way down the booking process that you get the full price. Of course, that need not take too long, that could be done very quickly.
Q107 Mrs Ellman: You say that is not to do with a decision of your agents, it is to do with the availability of information?
Mr Bunce: That is the information that is loaded on at the first stage which our agents then pick up through the various systems.
Q108 Mr Scott: My question is going back a stage to what you were saying about some of the budget airlines in comparison with travel agents. From my experience, most travel agents do indeed put in the taxes with the prices and you know the price you are paying when you book it, whereas particularly (and I am so fond of the airline you mentioned) Ryanair do not do so and advertise, I believe, "You can get a flight for a penny" as one of their little gimmicks. As the Chairman quite rightly said, I was under the impression they did come under the legal jurisdiction of the OFT because they are advertising in British newspapers, even though they might be a Southern Irish airline.
Mr Bunce: They are a very, very clever company ---
Q109 Mr Scott: --- There is no question about that.
Mr Bunce: --- And if you look at their print advertising I think you will find that that does comply with all the necessary regulations. I have not got one here but I do not think they advertise flights for a penny in their print advertising.
Q110 Mr Scott: They do in newspapers.
Mr Bunce: You mean in newspapers?
Q111 Mr Scott: Yes, and they do.
Mr Bunce: I do not know.
Q112 Mr Scott: My other question is that if one of your customers is at an airport how do they contact a representative, because I know that the tour companies may have representatives there but not every tour company has representatives there? Do you think this is satisfactory? If somebody has a problem at an airport how would they contact anybody?
Ms Parsons: We would hope that if there were any problems they were actually things that were caused on the day and not problems which could have been resolved in advance with the travel agent. Certainly business agents would automatically provide an out-of-hours telephone number to their clients, so if there was a problem, say that there had been a delay and there was a knock-on effect and the passenger was going to get to their destination late and they needed to have their hotel changed, they could get the travel agent to do it, and we have found increasingly a lot of the independent travel agents will perform the same service for their valued clients.
Q113 Chairman: I have found your explanation, Mr Bunce, very helpful and precise but is there any evidence of how much business has actually been lost to ABTA members since the on-line booking system of flights became widespread?
Mr Bunce: In fact I think the market is booming. This causes all sorts of other issues with climate change and what have you, but the market in leisure travel is absolutely booming, and the number of traditional package holidays is actually fairly static, it is not really dropping. What we are seeing, though, is a huge growth in travel and that is where our members are not perhaps getting their slice of that new business because that is direct business where the customers go onto the no-frills airlines' websites and book up their flights without going through a travel agent, so I do not think they are taking away the business directly but are our members getting their slug of the business; possibly not.
Q114 Chairman: Have you ever worked out the economic classification of the people who are still coming to travel agents? Are they defined by a particular economic class?
Ms Parsons: We have tended to find that possibly older people who are not so familiar with the Internet will continue to go to travel agents, but interestingly a lot of people actually do their research on-line themselves but when it comes to booking they go to the travel agent, and that is particularly true if they have got a long journey in mind because there are a great many opportunities of going via a third point. You can get a cheaper fare, for example, travelling on Aeroflot rather than flying direct on British Airways to somewhere, and a travel agent would know about all of these, so people do tend to trust the travel agent far more when it is longer, more expensive type journey.
Q115 Chairman: Do they think it is a matter of confidence, they do not have total confidence in booking by computer?
Ms Parsons: It is but also the travel agent will actually give very good advice, hopefully, on visas, passports, health, vaccinations and insurance for that particular journey in question.
Q116 Chairman: So you are not really just getting the lower socio-economic groups?
Ms Parsons: No, definitely not.
Q117 Chairman: I think that is quite helpful. Do your members charge extra for taking bookings over the telephone?
Mr Bunce: It is not something that I have come across.
Ms Parsons: Interestingly, Simon Evans did refer to BA introducing a flat charge. That is £15 and it is for any booking which is made using a person, whether it is over the counter or over the telephone. Because British Airways does that, typically a travel agent will also do the same because the days when travel agents were paid vast amounts of commission have long gone and they are having to make any money themselves from charging a fee to the clients. They would say it is because they would add value and they do provide a service to the client.
Mr Bunce: I do not think though that they would have a specific telephone charge. They will charge you a booking fee or a service fee for making the booking for you but I am not aware of telephone charges being a common feature.
Ms Parsons: We have certainly done a lot of work with agents about these service fees and our advice to them has always been when you mention the service fee, say it up front, say, "My price is X amount including my service fee."
Q118 Chairman: Do you ensure whether the agents are actually training their staff to actually make that point?
Ms Parsons: In terms of service fees?
Q119 Chairman: Yes?
Ms Parsons: A lot of training is required and in order to sell an airline ticket a travel agent does have to have qualified staff. There is also an ABTA requirement for qualified staff, but a travel agent will want to ensure that the passenger comes back to him, therefore he has to be transparent with the customer, so, yes, it would be a form of training and in fact a lot of travel agents would use a check-list which we provide to make quite sure that they have told the customer absolutely everything which is essential to that particular journey.
Q120 Chairman: Is there likely to be an extra charge for the use of a credit card?
Ms Parsons: Certainly some of our tour operator members do pass on the charge for the credit card. It is unlikely to happen on the deposit but it will happen on the balance, and that is made quite clear in all their terms and conditions. The passenger has always got the option of paying by cheque or by debit card for which there is no additional price.
Q121 Chairman: And do you offer facilities routinely like payment by instalments?
Ms Parsons: No, other than normally a ten per cent deposit is required up-front on a package holiday, but the balance would be due normally eight weeks out.
Q122 Chairman: So if I book a ticket through one of your travel agents, what role do you then have in the rest of my holiday, what involvement and at which level in case everything goes right or wrong?
Ms Parsons: Are you talking about a package holiday or are you talking about ---
Q123 Chairman: Both. The bulk of travel agents' work would still be presumably package holidays? Mr Bunce?
Mr Bunce: With a tour operator selling a package holiday, of course you have got a very close relationship there between the customer and the products that they have bought, which is put together by the seller, so you have a very close relationship and if there are any problems you can go back to the tour operator and they will deal with them and sort them out. With a travel agent it rather depends on the sort of clients that you have got, the sort of travel agency that you are dealing with. You can get very high-service travel agents, typically business travel agents, who will make money out of the fees they charge for the assistance that they give you. If you just go into a travel agent off the street and buy an airline ticket and that is it, then you are got going to get a huge level of support.
Q124 Chairman: What you are saying is it is really the degree of expertise that the agent is required to demonstrate? If it is a straightforward transaction I simply go in and buy a ticket and that is more or less the involvement of the travel agent completed?
Mr Bunce: He puts you into contract with the airline, your relationship is with the airline, and as long as he has done that job properly that is the end of it.
Q125 Clive Efford: What involvement does one of your members have with one of their customers who might be detained as a disruptive passenger and possibly prosecuted? Is there any involvement for ABTA members?
Ms Parsons: None at all. The airline ticket is a contract between the airline and the passenger. It becomes a legal matter because of potential criminal charges or civil proceedings and the travel agent has no role in that.
Q126 Clive Efford: If someone were to be involved in an incident like that are you informed of it and can you in the future, if they are convicted of some sort of crime, refuse to sell them a ticket in the future?
Ms Parsons: Insofar as the charter airlines are concerned, I believe that they have recently been able to exchange information, so for example if somebody flew out on First Choice and threatened a stewardess with something nasty, a broken bottle for example, that airline would exchange views informally with the other airlines to make quite sure, for example, that a Thomson flight did not then bring the same passenger back. There is a great deal more information passing between the airlines, for the safety of their own staff and for other passengers.
Q127 Clive Efford: I am sorry, I am not clear. You are involved in that if there is an alteration as a consequence of an incident during the journey?
Ms Parsons: The travel agent is not involved in it.
Q128 Clive Efford: Not at all?
Mr Bunce: And ABTA is not involved.
Q129 Clive Efford: So if it results in an alteration, say, to a return flight or something like that for somebody who has been involved in an incident like that, that is not the concern of the travel agent at all?
Mr Bunce: It depends, does it not? No doubt if the customer feels it is going to help him he will get in touch with his travel agent and say, "What can you do for me to get me back home again." Depending on the situation and the relationship the travel agent may get involved.
Q130 Clive Efford: What sort of advice do you give to an agent in those circumstances because they are presumably going to be concerned about facilitating another journey for somebody who is disruptive on a flight.
Ms Parsons: We have never come up against that, thank goodness.
Q131 Clive Efford: I am glad we are probing all the possible scenarios here!
Mr Bunce: If I were asked that question by one of our members, what should I do, I think my advice would be if you can get him on a plane and get him home then do it because I cannot see that just by selling him a ticket that the agent is going to be implicating himself in any wrong-doing that the passenger might do.
Q132 Clive Efford: If I am having a difficulty on my journey and I am at an airport do you have agents there that I can go to to help me out because things are not running as smoothly as they should do?
Mr Bunce: ABTA or our members?
Q133 Clive Efford: Your members?
Mr Bunce: Again, if it is a traditional holiday tour operator, generally they will. The smaller tour operators do have outsourced agents at airports who can assist you. Travel agents generally will not, but they will have a helpline, they will have a contact number that you can get them on to sort out any problems.
Q134 Clive Efford: I was going to ask that; if I need help how do I find it?
Mr Bunce: You will have your documentation from the travel agent and included in that would be their helpline telephone number.
Q135 Chairman: I just want to bring you back a little bit to this question of the change in the way that your members benefit from business now. It seems to me that whereas once upon a time the bulk of the business was the selling of package holidays, your members did move very largely into also selling seats, almost in a normal commercial way on an existing aircraft; is that not true?
Ms Parsons: Our members do not just sell package holidays, they also sell flights, and flights on traditional scheduled airlines that have not reduced and overall probably about 80 per cent of all scheduled airline seats - and I am talking about across the board, foreign airlines as well as the UK - are actually sold through travel agents. That figure has not reduced at all, it is still there. As Mr Bunce has already said, it is the no-frills carriers which have actually grown the market.
Q136 Chairman: I understand that but what I am trying to get at is you must also sell charter flight seats; is that right?
Ms Parsons: Yes, the charter flight seats of our tour operator members.
Q137 Chairman: So we have two lots, we have scheduled flights and chartered flights. I want, Mr Bunce, to come back to you because I think it is very important for us to sort out this question of the total price on the face of the ticket. What you are really saying is that it is the tradition and the habit of your members to give that information to whoever is buying the deal at the point that they are dealing with them inside the agency. Is it not unfair competition if the low-fare so-called no-frills airlines do not make that clear at the immediate point of sale? Is that not unfair competition for your members?
Mr Bunce: Yes.
Q138 Chairman: And when you talked to the Office of Fair Trading are you convinced that they understood the inequity of this deal and that they accepted that it was not something that could continue?
Mr Bunce: I fully understand that they believe that that situation should not continue because it is not fair for consumers because they are not being shown the correct price when they are making their choice, and it is not fair for the other players in the industry who are advertising properly and who are being apparently undercut by the no-frills carriers. That was the discussion we had and we were in full agreement on it.
Q139 Chairman: And that was just before Christmas?
Mr Bunce: Yes.
Q140 Chairman: I think that has been extremely helpful, madam, gentlemen, thank you for coming and we have certainly learnt quite a lot. Thank you very much
Mr Bunce: And we did talk about financial protection. Thank you anyway.
Witnesses: Mr Oliver Richardson, Regional Industrial Organiser (Aviation), and Mr Roger Sealey, Transport Researcher, Transport and General Workers' Union, gave evidence.
Q141 Chairman: Good afternoon, gentlemen. Could I ask you to identify yourselves for the record.
Mr Sealey: My name is Roger Sealey and I am the Transport Researcher for the Transport and General Workers' Union.
Mr Richardson: Oliver Richardson, I am a full-time official for the Transport and General Workers' Union, covering Heathrow and some of the cabin crew community.
Q142 Chairman: Did you have something that you wanted to say before we go into questions?
Mr Sealey: No, can we go straight into questions please.
Chairman: Mr Efford?
Q143 Clive Efford: Is it correct that crew qualifications and training are not recognised between airlines so that for example a BA steward would have to be retrained to be a Virgin steward?
Mr Richardson: Absolutely correct, yes.
Q144 Clive Efford: So what is the rationale behind that lack of transferability?
Mr Richardson: We find the rationale a bit confusing. Effectively the CAA issue an aircraft operator's certificate and included in that is a requirement to carry out certain forms of training, but there is no logic to that training because it certifies one aircraft operator could be transferred to another. We do not understand why and we have campaigned for a number of years to have a licence which is transferable between airlines.
Q145 Clive Efford: And what has been the outcome of your campaign?
Mr Richardson: It has met stony ground so far.
Q146 Clive Efford: Do any airlines that you know of charge trainees for training and the uniform without the promise of a job? You can name and shame them as well.
Mr Richardson: Okay, we can name and shame them. I believe that there are some agencies which will promise pre-training and they will charge for that. Whether they are linked directly to the airline I am not sure and certainly in terms of Ryanair that seems to have been a practice for employing crew. They also employ a number of agency crew so they are not direct employees of the airlines, they are agencies which are providing those crews, who have to go through some training.
Q147 Clive Efford: And do you think that there should be an industry-wide standard for this?
Mr Richardson: Notionally there is an industry-wide standard because the aircraft operator's certificate ensures that certain minimum standards are met, but we are concerned that there should be a simple certification of crew where everybody knows exactly what training they have and that the style of training is carried out in the same manner.
Q148 Chairman: Mr Richardson, what does it actually say in the CAA requirement?
Mr Richardson: I will have to remember it off the top of my head but there are certain requirements that training needs to be carried out.
Q149 Chairman: But no definition of training, no clear statement of what the modules should be?
Mr Richardson: Clear statements about safety, evacuation procedures, first aid, et cetera, so there are clear stipulations but the method of that training and the manner of that training is left up to the operator and the CAA will grant them a certificate should they effectively have the right methods in place. However, the certificate covers the operation of the entire airline so should they fail in carrying out their training properly they will have to remove the entire operating certificate from the aircraft operator.
Q150 Chairman: But how do they know? At what point do they check on the standards throughout the airline?
Mr Richardson: I believe they have periodic checks but we do not know from week to week whether any individual cabin crew member would meet the requirement for the CAA or not. It would be a big step for the CAA to remove the entire operating certificate because the standards dropped for one month or two months, and that is why we believe a separate qualification for crew which is transferable should be used and could be a better way to maintain standards, because you could then say if these crew have not been trained in the proper way they have to be retrained but it would not jeopardise the entire operation in relation to an airline, and if you could imagine the likes of Virgin and BA having their entire aircraft operator's certificate removed because the training for one, two, three, four months was not up to standard, the consequences of that would be immeasurable, and therefore we believe it is unlikely that the CAA would ever do that.
Q151 Clive Efford: And is it correct that as soon as the wheels leave the tarmac that cabin crew are generally not covered by the Working Time Regulations, health and safety law, or requirements for annual leave?
Mr Richardson: We are currently going through a fairly lengthy legal process when it comes to what they are subject to and what they are not subject to. The problem we have experienced in the past, and we still experience, is the distinction between the CAA and their responsibility, which is precisely for the aircraft when it leaves the tarmac, where they are only responsible for safety. When the aircraft is on the tarmac it is the HSE that is responsible and they are responsible for health and safety, and this is not always married up. There have been some working parties recently which have wanted to marry it up. There is a distinction between the role of the two and therefore all the issues around health - rest breaks, rest periods, et cetera - do not come under health and safety legislation, they come under something else which is effectively European regulation of aviation and the relevant legislation which is JAR-OPS, so it is slightly different from the health and safety legislation that we know and it is also slightly different from the Working Time Directive.
Mr Sealey: There is what they call a sector-specific Directive on Working Time for the civil aviation industry in Europe, and the CAA are responsible for its implementation in the UK, but that normally covers the maximum number of hours working in a year. It is not like the standard Working Time Directive where you have got certain upper limits on hours of working, there is more flexibility in it. The reason it is a sector-specific agreement is that it was agreed between the industrial social partners at the European level at the ETF on behalf of the T&G and other unions who negotiated that agreement.
Q152 Clive Efford: But does this disparity between health and safety and CAA regulations when you are on the tarmac and when you are in the air create any opportunities for loopholes for companies to abuse staff in terms of hours of work and, if so, is there anything that needs to be done to rectify it?
Mr Richardson: I think the involvement and the agreement of the social partners at the European level has had some impact on that but we do have loopholes, we have overseas aircraft operators, American and Japanese firms, who have cabin crews who are based in the UK, and they are not covered specifically by that legislation. They come under entirely different working patterns and working methods and there is a question of what is sovereign territory when it comes to an aircraft. An aircraft flying into the UK is effectively the sovereign territory of another nation state. Outside of Europe that becomes more problematic so there are definite loopholes in that.
Q153 Clive Efford: Notwithstanding the complexity of it, is there anything that can be done to close any of them down or rectify the situation at all?
Mr Richardson: I think there really needs to be an involvement of the CAA and the HSE, not at a level of understanding and comprehension, but there needs to be a real requirement for them to have clear lines of communication and responsibility, and most importantly the CAA needs to evolve the same responsibility on health as it does on safety and all the aspects of health and safety legislation that we know, whether it is things like attacks on passengers, abuse, sexism, racism that is experienced. For those kinds of issues there is a different responsibility on board the aircraft than there is on the ground, and we think those loopholes should be closed and we think that there ought to be a much stronger bond between the two.
Q154 Clive Efford: Is there in your experience any evidence of particular airlines that abuse these loopholes? You can name and shame again.
Mr Richardson: Potentially there is a question about social dumping, that airlines are able to relocate their operation to other parts of whether it be Europe or whether it be outside of Europe and use different crews who come under different legislation to operate, and we have had some concerns about that because we are seeing it in other transport industries. As aviation becomes more liberalised we believe there could be a tendency for that to occur. We have already seen it in the utilisation of some overseas based crew by some of the UK carriers.
Q155 Clive Efford: Are you saying when the air industry becomes more liberalised, you think the open skies agreement may impact there?
Mr Richardson: Potentially there could be a significant impact because you would be able to operate aircraft in and out of the UK as is your want without restriction and there may be a role for overseas based crew which could be utilised in a fairly significant manner and it would become more viable for them to be utilised.
Q156 Mr Clelland: What is the current state of the relationship between the Transport and General Workers' Union and airlines and airports?
Mr Richardson: I think it is effectively indicative of where the industry has been and where it is going. It used to be highly regulated, mainly state-subsidised and effectively a costly or a more luxury good; it is now becoming deregulated, profit-orientated and a very common commodity, and you can see that that puts tremendous pressures on our members, partly because there are not enormous productivity gains to be had at airports, it is a very manual and labour intensive operation, and partly because you cannot move airports in the same way you can move other industries, for example take Heathrow and ship it somehow else where labour is cheaper thereby increasing profit, that is just not particularly viable, so therefore there becomes a real tension around squeezing the workforces as intensively as possible as well as squeezing their terms and conditions as intensively as possible. The new model for aviation in terms of low-cost airlines is based on a very simple product, it is price competitive, with no complexity in the network, and utilising your aircraft as much as possible, so turning your aircraft around as much as possible and as quickly as possible so you can get three or four what we call sectors (that is where you take off and land in a day) as opposed to two or three. You can imagine the pressure on the ground. You will see that in all sorts of symptoms, whether it be the increase in injuries that we have seen over the past years, changes in luggage policy whereby they do not want to put luggage in the hold, they want people to take luggage on board, get them on off the aircraft, turn it around and get some new people on and fly to another destination as soon as possible. So we really do see enormous pressures and that inevitably has led to some conflicts where our members quite rightly have said, "Enough is enough and these are not the kind of conditions that we want to work in."
Q157 Mr Clelland: If that means that the relationships are strained how does that impact on passengers?
Mr Richardson: I think passengers are also facing the brunt of changes in aviation because there is a desire to reduce staffing levels. Self-service check-in, on-line check-in, bag drops; all these elements are removing staffing levels at the front line, and particularly when things go wrong there simply are not the staff around that there used to be to deal with those kinds of problems, and what we call below wing, when you are loading and unloading aircraft, you are having pressure on the numbers of people on that and problems with baggage, as we saw with the fog over the Christmas period, which has now become a significant issue because again they want to get those aircraft up and moving, they do not want to repatriate baggage, they do not want to look around for baggage, they do not want to do things like that, and that produces a very strained relationship and it inevitably produces significant points of discontent and upset. We saw that too last year on 10 August with the change in security regulations and what happened to the operation there as well as obviously during the fog at Christmas, and these become real points of consternation for passengers. Inevitably, there just are not the people to turn to to solve it, and again airlines are reducing their direct employees, so there are fewer and fewer people who actually work for the airline you bought the ticket from who are there to help you out.
Q158 Mr Clelland: What does this lead to in terms of passengers' perception of baggage handlers for instance?
Mr Richardson: I am sure at the best of times they never had a good perception of baggage handlers but I think it does lead to increasing frustration. Where there were very straightforward processes for changing flights, for claiming your baggage, what you claimed on your baggage, that seems, from the way we are perceiving it, to be being lost, and it inevitably becomes cheaper now for airlines not to look for baggage but just simply to compensate, and part of that has been probably an unforeseen consequence of the standardisation of compensation packages across the EU that you simply write the cheque rather than find the luggage.
Q159 Mr Clelland: Are baggage handlers poorly paid?
Mr Sealey: Yes, their wages are low.
Q160 Mr Clelland: Airports are booming, are they not?
Mr Sealey: Yes but we have seen this in other areas of transport, and what we have said to this Committee in different things is that whether it be the airports or the airlines they are outsourcing those services that they see as non-core and then putting them to the market and letting the market push them down to the lowest possible level and then the contractor picks that up. They are under pressure to meet turn around times, which are very difficult, and it hits them, especially at peaks - holiday times, that sort of thing - where more people are going through and then the system becomes overloaded and that is when we get disputes. People say it is baggage handlers or the check-in staff going on strike at a time when they know it is going to be busy, that is also when the pressure is on them the most because they are understaffed and customers are under pressure. Flying is still a stressful experience for a lot of people, whether it is because they are cut off from their cigarettes or their drinking or whatever, and all the evidence about air rage and that sort of thing is because people are under pressure from flying in itself. So you have got the pressure of flying and then all those other pressures coming together and that is why we have the flash points.
Q161 Mr Clelland: Other people's experience is probably rather like mine; the flying bit is the easy bit, the stressful bit is the airport. Do you think that the proposed change in BA's baggage policy will cause any difficulties for your members?
Mr Richardson: Yes, I think it was wrapped up with difficulties for our members caused by the move to terminal five, where I think there were very real pressures in terms of whether BA would continue to handle on the ground in terminal five. At Heathrow there are possibly only four carriers - American Airlines, United Airlines, Air Canada and BA - who directly handle. Some carriers have wholly-owned ground handlers and the rest have separate ground handlers, so I think there was a real pressure in relation to the move to terminal five and whether the industrial group of ground handlers would still be there or whether there would be some sort of contracting. Inevitably BA went out and carried out an exercise in benchmarking and that has put the squeeze on the numbers who are able to operate in terminal five and turn round an aircraft. That kind of approach has put pressure on our members and they certainly will feel that when it comes to these pinch points. In a normal operation you usually you have less problems, but the problem with aviation is that these days it is not the seamless industry it used to be, it is a very complex industry with a lot of inter-linkages, and once you break one of those it disrupts the entire system, and that is where you begin to have significant problems where we simply do not have the ability to remedy it because there are simply not the staff around.
Mr Sealey: Airline companies are not the only think that you have got to take into account when you are taking in the baggage handling policy. You can also look at the role of the CAA as the regulator. It licenses the number of operators in an airport. Last year we were having and we still are having difficulties at Gatwick over the CAA wanting to increase the number of operators in Gatwick, and yet there are major problems with congestion and safety issues at the existing number of operators, but the CAA want to open it up, saying that the market is not liberalised yet. Five years ago they were the ones who set the cap on the number of operators in Gatwick because it was seen to be congested and unsafe, and since then the actual number of passengers and the number of flights going in at Gatwick have increased and yet the CAA are saying we can open it up to more competition and more baggage handlers in there.
Chairman: I think they have solved that by building so many gates that it gives you the impression that you are actually walking to your destination!
Q162 Mr Clelland: Obviously there has been growth in employment in the sector over the last ten years. Has your membership kept pace with that?
Mr Sealey: Depending on which areas. In certain areas employment has gone down and is forecast to go down. BAA's forecast is that employment over the next 15 years will go down quite considerably within Gatwick and that is because of competitive pressure and technology replacing people.
Mr Richardson: Generally speaking, our membership has gone up and it has continued to increase. We have also increased in new airports such as Stansted as well as traditional areas such as Heathrow. Our membership has kept pace and it is a high union density industry, probably 60 to 70 per cent of the industry is unionised. Some of those are specialised unions such BALPA and Amicus, covering engineers, but it is has continued to be a fairly unionised industry.
Q163 Mrs Ellman: Do you have any records of the numbers of attacks made on staff?
Mr Richardson: We do have records from companies that report incidents on aircraft and the CAA I believe also hold some records. Not necessarily physical attacks but abusive passengers are the most significant incidents that occur on board an aircraft. There are other incidents that can be categorised like smoking on board an aircraft. You still get people who smoke on board an aircraft, and smoking in the cabin and smoking in the toilets are categorised differently in one of the airlines that I deal with, but certainly abusive passengers is probably 40 to 50 per cent of incidents on board an aircraft.
Q164 Mrs Ellman: And what are the trends? Is it going up or is it stable?
Mr Richardson: The trends, sadly, have increased in some areas and been fairly stable in others, so we have not seen a decrease in those incidents. Part of that may be that there has been an increase in the total number of passengers that are flying but we have not seen significant reductions in those incidents at all.
Q165 Mrs Ellman: We had some evidence that suggests that there are more disruptive passengers on low-cost airlines than on others. Is that borne out by anything you know?
Mr Richardson: Again, I do not have direct evidence to that effect. I have not seen all the evidence of all the airlines and I do not have direct evidence. Is that on board an aircraft or is that for example within the terminal area?
Q166 Mrs Ellman: On board.
Mr Richardson: Certainly causes of incidents of abusive behaviour, alcohol and alcohol purchased on board, are very significant issues that airlines face, so whether there is a tendency for more alcohol to be bought on board a lower cost airline than a high-cost airline I do not know, but I have not come to any conclusive evidence about it myself. It may be that on holiday destinations and leisure destinations people are in a very different mood than they would be on long haul destinations or business destinations. In a long-haul aircraft you have a much more common pattern of management where somebody is on an aircraft for eight, nine or 12 hours and that produces slightly different behaviours from somebody who is on an aircraft for one or two hours.
Q167 Mrs Ellman: You have no actual evidence of whether that is the case?
Mr Richardson: Not that I have come across but I only have selected airlines, I do not have the total airline figures.
Q168 Mrs Ellman: You mentioned earlier the faster turnaround times for planes. What sort of impact is that having on staff?
Mr Richardson: There are two aspects to faster turnaround times. One is the intensity of work - loading and unloading - and that often causes real problems for us, and the other is congestion around the aircraft. Where you used to have a single airline that would load and unload everything on the aircraft and probably do most jobs, bar the refuelling, ten or 15 years ago, you are now getting six or seven different businesses who are applying their services to that aircraft with very little co-ordination. In fact, the HSE and ourselves have been campaigning for co-ordination on turnarounds because there is no overall responsibility for that, so you get intense pressure on work as well as congestion where the cleaners and caterers are on board an aircraft and they have a conflict over who is doing what and who has access. The cargo people turn up, who are separate from the ground handling, and again there is a conflict on where they park their vehicles and who has access or otherwise, so you can imagine the intensity of that and the complexity of all these different employers without a single co-ordinating point produces conflicts both on the tarmac as well as problems in terms of boarding passengers or aircraft being delayed, as well as, like I said, there has been a significant increase in lifting injuries and musculoskeletal injuries.
Q169 Chairman: What are we talking about, Mr Richardson? What are the degrees of increase in injury? Are we talking about bumps and scratches or are we talking about fractures?
Mr Richardson: We are mainly talking about manual handling injuries. There is still an intense amount of manual handling, whether it be handling large cargo canisters, or whether it be getting into an aircraft hold and physically pulling out baggage, or whether it be pushing trolleys, they are mainly manual handling problems and those are back injuries.
Q170 Chairman: So they are skeletal?
Mr Richardson: Absolutely. Similarly, we have had problems in terms of increased security checks which mean we are getting problems with joints, bending and stretching at the security parts, so those have increased. We understand there are some provisional figures from the HSE which have not yet been circulated and we understand for the first time they have increased significantly this year where there had been a trend to flatten out. Even per passenger mile flown they have increased, so it is not just due to the increase in the industry. It is a trend that goes beyond the increase in the employment within the industry and that is a real concern for us and there are no specific manual handling regulations for aviation, whereas most industries, as Roger has mentioned, have very specific regulations in terms of HSE. There are simply no manual handling regulations for aviation where manual handling is the most common source of injury that we find.
Q171 Mrs Ellman: Would you say there is any recognition of these problems in the airlines?
Mr Richardson: Historically no, very little recognition.
Mr Sealey: On that point we have got some figures. The HSE estimate that in the airports a baggage handler is 4.5 times more likely to suffer an injury than a normal worker and that is higher than somebody working in the building industry or somewhere like that. We have been doing some quite long-term work with the HSE in regard to baggage handling on this and they clearly recognise that as a problem. There are other issues around that. The fact is, as Oliver was saying, with baggage handling, because the crews are so stretched, where there are supposed to be a set number of people who are supposed to load or unload the aircraft one crew will start loading or unloading the aeroplane but will not be at full strength because the other crew is still offloading or loading another aircraft, and also they may not have the right loading equipment to get the baggage into the hold. This is all because of everyone being so stretched and this is also now impacting into security areas where all unaccompanied baggage should be checked through the system. Increasingly, we are finding because the head of the team is not trained to a proper standard they do not even know what the standards are for dealing with unaccompanied baggage, so it is quite likely that there could be major security breaches because people are not trained and are just overstretched.
Q172 Mrs Ellman: Is anything being done about this? Is this being addressed?
Mr Sealey: We raised this issue specifically last year with the CAA in regard to when they were arguing about liberalising the baggage handling in the industry, in Gatwick specifically, and we have had no response to this at all.
Q173 Mrs Ellman: Nothing?
Mr Sealey: No.
Mr Richardson: In relation to the HSE we have campaigned over the past couple of years to bring down the baggage weight limit, first to 32 kilos and have it enforced, and then down to 23, which we hope will be implemented this year, and we have campaigned very heavily on that and we are campaigning for specific regulations on manual handling and specific training relevant to aviation to be given. The HSE seem to be slightly more progressive and hopefully will produce some of those regulations, but looking at the figures round about 55 to 56 per cent of injuries over three days are musculoskeletal, which is basically manual handling injuries, and that is a very, very significant issue for the industry and it is an issue that is increasing for the industry not decreasing and that should not be the case in this industry.
Q174 Mrs Ellman: How long have you been campaigning?
Mr Richardson: On the baggage weight limit we have been campaigning for two or three years; on the manual handling specifically it is about a year or two years we have been raising it; and similarly with turnaround times that we spoke about earlier, it is because the CAA and the HSE have finally got some co-ordination together that we have a seat on their committee which we have been using to campaign for these kind of regulations to be brought in.
Q175 Mrs Ellman: Cabin crew have a responsibility in relation to passenger safety. Do you think that that is fully understood and recognised?
Mr Richardson: No, I think there is a traditional element of sexism within the industry where the cabin crew are effectively devalued. The common phrase that is used for them is "trolley dollies", but they are absolutely critical in terms of the legislation. They are responsible for passenger safety and when they swipe on for work, unlike many of us, they are swiping on to declare that they are fit and capable of safely operating and being responsible for the safety of the passengers, so I do not think it is particularly recognised, I think it is devalued. A lot of other safety critical staff have separate licences, whether it be engineers and pilots or whether it be air traffic controllers, but cabin crew are not seen as being part of that safety critical operation. There is specific legislation that relates to offences on board an aircraft. Cabin crew in their basic training are expected to carry out a cuffing procedure for passengers who effectively threaten the safety of an aircraft and yet they are not held in particularly high esteem within the industry or outside the industry.
Q176 Mrs Ellman: Why do you think that is?
Mr Richardson: I think it is generally because it is a female-dominated part of the industry. I also think looking back at the 1947 National Agreement on Aviation there were two types of definition, one was effectively a catering assistant (ground) and the other was catering assistant (air), and that is where cabin crew in the UK initially were categorised, as a catering assistant in the air, and I think they have held a legacy and a stigma from that. We see them as safety professionals in the air and that is first and foremost their responsibility and it is their responsibility in law and it should be acknowledged as such.
Q177 Chairman: British Airways was widely believed to have got rid of its outstations at Manchester and Glasgow because this enabled them to replace their existing professional, and in many cases, long-serving cabin staff with people who were much cheaper by bringing them in at London airport, under different conditions. Have you any experience of that?
Mr Richardson: Yes, BA have effectively withdrawn from the regional operation within the UK, so operating between different points of the UK as opposed to bringing everything into London and then taking it out of London, so in the direct regional operation from Manchester to Bristol they have progressively removed themselves from it. They only have three bases, Gatwick, London Heathrow and Glasgow. Every other base - and there used to be a lot of them - has now been removed. Initially they did that through BA Connect, which was a wholly owned subsidiarity which had much lower terms and conditions than mainline BA, and they have just sold BA Connect and completed the sale to Flybe, which is a low-cost regional point-to-point operator, so BA's strategy is we do not want to incur any expense associated with the regional operation," and they have effectively removed themselves entirely from the regions.
Q178 Chairman: Is it not extraordinary that cabin crew are one of the few groups of professionals who are not certificated?
Mr Richardson: Absolutely, I would completely agree with that.
Q179 Chairman: Because what you have said about safety is fundamental to the protection of the passenger, is it not?
Mr Richardson: Absolutely, I completely agree.
Q180 Chairman: Is there any indication that a more inadequate system of safety training is available to staff who are employed on poorer conditions?
Mr Richardson: Well, they have to abide by an aircraft operator's certificate and the CAA has to endorse the training in order to issue it.
Q181 Chairman: How often is that, in fact, checked? When was the last time the CAA removed a certificate from anybody because of their poor staff training?
Mr Richardson: To my knowledge, never.
Q182 Chairman: It is not very likely really, is it?
Mr Richardson: No, I would think the political and economic consequences would be enormous.
Q183 Chairman: So should there be an industry-wide standard?
Mr Richardson: I believe there should, yes.
Mr Sealey: On that point, at the European level we have been campaigning for a recognised licence for all cabin crew to operate within the EU. That has been agreed with the trade unions within Europe. The opposition has come from the employers and the enforcement agencies.
Q184 Chairman: Can you tell us a bit about this EU-OPS registration? What is that?
Mr Richardson: EU-OPS is effectively the framework agreement for operating aircraft within Europe, so there is a standard operating procedure, and that lays down certain requirements, and that is things like flight-time limitations, et cetera. The UK mechanism for applying that is through the CAA so they are the regulatory body within the UK and, again, as Roger has said, we sometimes find there is a conflict between the CAA being the regulatory body and the CAA being a body that makes decisions about operators and how many can operate at an airport, issuing licences and not issuing licences, so we think there should be a distinction between the two.
Q185 Chairman: Are those proposed changes, particularly about cabin crew licensing, going to lower safety standards in 50 per cent of the EU countries?
Mr Richardson: We believe that there are potentially lower standards in other EU countries that would be enshrined and the problem is they are not of the same safety standard, we believe, as has historically been the case within the UK. The UK has had a fairly decent track record in terms of aviation safety but we believe that this is not true of other European states who have had historically very poor records, so we have some real concerns that it will be a backdoor way for lower standards to come in.
Q186 Chairman: So what you are saying is if they harmonise they are likely to harmonise downwards?
Mr Richardson: We have a real fear about that, yes.
Q187 Chairman: So the passenger would be much more at risk than they would be in this country?
Mr Richardson: Potentially yes.
Q188 Chairman: Is it true that cabin crew are not covered by the Working Time Regulations and the health and safety law?
Mr Richardson: They are covered by Working Time Regulations which has just been transposed into it and that is where the EU-OPS and Working Time Regulations ---
Q189 Chairman: --- are in conflict?
Mr Richardson: --- have been brought together. There is some conflict, as I have previously mentioned, over crew who are working for operators who are registered overseas and outside the EU, who operate under entirely different legislation and they are not subject, although we are going through a legal process at the moment, but their companies deem them not to be subject to that legislation, so even though they are based in the UK and employed in the UK they are not subject, so their employers believe, to the Working Time Regulations.
Q190 Chairman: Which airlines are worse than others in this respect? Do you want to tell us?
Mr Richardson: From what I understand, the Japanese flight-time regulations are radically different when it comes to the European flight-time regulations. I am not saying they are worse but they vary tremendously. I think some of the Eastern European regulations outside of the EU bloc, again their flight-time limitations, from my cursory knowledge, are less regulated than ours.
Q191 Chairman: Any other operator you can think of?
Mr Richardson: No, I am not too familiar with the US ones. I could provide some information on flight-time limitations if you want.
Q192 Chairman: Any other airline based outside Britain but operating almost entirely within Britain?
Mr Richardson: Operating outside Britain in terms of?
Q193 Chairman: Based outside, its headquarters outside the United Kingdom?
M Richardson: Like I said, the overseas operators in terms of employees in the UK - Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific, Nippon Airlines, Japan Airlines - all have cabin crew who are based in the UK and are employed in the UK but who work under very different regulations, so those are four for example that I can think of.
Q194 Chairman: You did mention the fact that the majority of cabin crew are women. Are they reporting to you more instances of low-level intimidation or harassment from passengers?
Mr Richardson: Not necessarily more instances but there has been a continual level which has not dropped, and that again is our concern. Those are from the airlines that I deal with. The concern is despite a number of campaigns - for example British Airways ran a campaign using a card system similar to that in football and you got a yellow card and then you got a red card and a red card meant that you were sent off and you would be potentially barred from flying with BA either for life or for a period of time and there was a lot of publicity at the time when it was introduced and there was some training for crew and ground staff - but we have not seen a particular decrease in those instances.
Q195 Chairman: But you have raised those issues with the airlines consistently, have you?
Mr Richardson: Yes, absolutely.
Q196 Chairman: So what is their response, have they quietly forgotten it as they are looking for lower overheads?
Mr Richardson: I do not think they have quietly forgotten it. I think they have paid lip service to it and simply said, "Yes, where passengers are a problem we will do what is required," but generally the industry has not been particularly good at addressing it.
Q197 Chairman: Is there a difference between low-cost and standard airlines?
Mr Richardson: Most definitely. Some of the main airlines do have policies in place because there are strong structures for us to push those policies through. The low-cost airlines do not have a similar policy in place.
Q198 Chairman: So you are really saying that sometimes cabin crew on the low-cost airlines accept a lower standard of behaviour from passengers?
Mr Richardson: I think they are subject to a lower standard of behaviour. For example, where there are airlines who have check-in staff, staff at the gate, staff on board the aircraft, there is a series of mechanisms whereby disruptive passengers can be filtered out. Where those airlines subcontract all of that, in reality somebody who works for a different company who is at a gate who spots a passenger who is drunk and a bit abusive would prefer to put them on to an aircraft and send them off to the other side of the world as opposed to have to deal with them themselves. It is an inevitable consequence of all the sub-contracting. Nobody wants to take the responsibility so "Let's just get them on board and get them home, that is probably the best thing to do." We have also had problems with passengers who are stopped from boarding aircraft because there is a real reluctance if they are not based in the UK for anything to happen in terms of prosecution. It is usually they calm down and are then put on another flight, which does not send out the signals that we would wish to be sent out as an industry.
Q199 Chairman: So the assumption half the time is if we get them off our patch it is easier than having to solve the problem in another more structured fashion?
Mr Richardson: Absolutely.
Q200 Chairman: I think that has been extremely instructive and very helpful. In general terms cabin crew do not seem to be valued in the same way that they once were.
Mr Richardson: I would agree with that absolutely, yes
Q201 Chairman: Is there any structured attempt on the part of the unions to get the airlines not only to produce proper protection for people working in this field but also to have a proper structured training programme and to ensure that people are forced to comply with those standards?
Mr Sealey: I think really the underlying problem we have is that if we are dealing with individual companies, unless there is a common standard, then it could be difficult to arrive at an agreement. We think it is the role of the CAA to be very much more involved in setting the standards, and they do not necessarily have to do that themselves, that role could be devolved to either GoSkills, which I think is the training body for that sector, and that could be agreed. Unless the CAA themselves pick up that role and say that is what is going to happen within the industry given the competition between different companies then you will just arrive at different standards.
Q202 Chairman: But given the fact that in effect they are both regulator and protector, are you really saying that they have got a confusion of role and therefore it might be better separated?
Mr Sealey: I think separated but also there is the thing which we review which is the regulator may be captured by the industry and listen much more to the industry itself than it does to any of the other stakeholders in the industry, and I think it needs to look at its role there.
Mr Richardson: Just in relation to campaigns, we have been running campaigns on airline sexism, on disruptive passengers and on certification of cabin crew for many years in conjunction with the ETF and the ITF. The problem is to a degree we are swimming against the tide in the industry, where you have somebody like Mr O'Leary who says, "If you are going to buy a ticket for one pence what do you expect? It is like a bus ride and you will get a bus service." We believe, as Roger has said, that the regulator needs to step up and say, "Hang on a sec, it is not quite like a bus service, it is slightly different and there are slightly greater responsibilities," and that is without belittling anybody who works in bus operations.
Q203 Chairman: If you have that in-built contempt both for your passengers and your staff, do you think it would be a bit difficult to perform well in relation to the interests of the passenger and everybody else involved in your industry?
Mr Richardson: Yes, I think there is a real question over whether he does perform in the interests of the passenger or the interests of the industry, and in many cases he is a lone voice.
Chairman: For a virtual industry they have got some very real representatives, so thank you for coming this afternoon.