Session 2010-11
Publications on the internet

5

Written evidence from the Air Transport Users Council (AUC) (AWC 21)

Introduction

1. One of the core functions of the Air Transport Users Council (AUC) is to help passengers with enquiries or complaints about air travel. It will do so in relation to any problem. But is it also formally designated by Statutory Instrument to handle complaints that fall within the scope of Regulation EC261/2004. This Regulation covers passenger entitlements in the event of flight cancellation and delay, or of being denied boarding to a flight that operates.

2. One of the requirements of Regulation EC261/2004 is that airlines give information to passengers at the time of disruption to their flight. The information must include details of their rights under the Regulation and contact details for the designated body for complaints. The AUC thus receives regular feedback from passengers throughout the year about their experience of flight disruption.

3. This regular contact with passengers helps the AUC to understand how airlines handle routine disruptions to their own services as well as major events such as the recent adverse weather conditions. Much of this passenger feedback is anecdotal. But the AUC also takes up complaints with suppliers on behalf of passengers, which can provide an opportunity to get both sides of the story and to understand better what actually happened.

4. Major disruptions are not new. But in little over twelve months passengers have endured the winter of 2009-10, the impacts of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull

volcano in April, and the snow of December 2010.

5. The Quarmby review, to which the Committee refers in its call for evidence for this inquiry, gave a clear insight into the complicated operational structure of air travel, and into the difficulties inherent in bringing together all of the parts to recover from major disruption. It also described the measures that airlines and airports adopt to deal with it, as well as lessons that they say they have learned from winter 2009-10. The volcanic eruption the following April and the snow in December 2010 provided early opportunities for industry to put any changes into practice.

6. This memorandum from the AUC aims to provide the Committee with:

· feedback on what passengers have told AUC staff about their experience during the December 2010 snow disruption, and

· commentary on how airlines’ performance in looking after their passengers this time around compared with winter 2009-10 and the aftermath of the eruption of the volcano.

Passengers’ experience of the December 2010 snow disruption

7. A consistent theme in calls to the AUC’s telephone advice line was problems of communication. Passengers wanted to know two things:

· what is going on?

· what does it mean for me?

8. They needed to know what was happening to their flight. And, if the flight was cancelled, they needed to know what their options were and how could they exercise them. They told the AUC that they had encountered:

· lack of information

· conflicting information

· slow provision of, or out-of-date, information.

9. Passengers complained of not being able to get through to their airline on the telephone, and of websites not working when they tried to re-book their flights or to claim a refund on-line. A number of passengers told the AUC that a recorded message referred them to the airline’s website, which then referred them back to the telephone number that they had just called. Some complained about conflicting advice between airline and airport websites.

10. There were also some examples of impractical advice – such as to use surface travel from Scotland to Heathrow in place of a cancelled flight. Road and rail were of course also badly affected by the weather.

11. Some passengers said that they had been given a telephone number to call, but that that line was not open at the time of day that they had been given the information. Others complained that they had been told that they could re-book their flights only via the airline’s website, but that they did not have access to the Internet.

12. Many passengers complained of the absence of staff or information at the airport. They were not told about alternative flights or refund options, or about any arrangements for meals or hotel accommodation. Few were told that these were their entitlements under Regulation EC261/2004.

13. However, some passengers told us that they had been given clear information about what was happening to their flight, and about arrangements for hotel accommodation and meals.

14. In the weeks after the disruption, the AUC has been receiving complaints about delays in refunds for cancelled flights and in reimbursement of other expenses.

Commentary

15. The scale of the disruption caused by the snow, and the numbers of passengers affected, posed huge problems for all parties. Airlines and airports will no doubt explain to the Committee their operational efforts to deal with and recover from the disruption. In many cases, because of the snow, staff would have been unable to get to the airport to help out or to put in place elements of the operators’ contingency plans. Those who were there would have been directed to the most important task, or to where they personally could have greatest impact. And, at some point, staff need to sleep.

16. Meanwhile, the AUC acknowledges that it tends so see only the negative side of the passenger experience at such times. And the number of passengers that contact the AUC is a very small proportion of the total number that are affected. However, this feedback contributes to a general picture of what goes on.

17. To some extent, the feedback from passengers about communication initially appeared to be at odds with what the AUC understands of industry practices, and with what airlines themselves have told the AUC. In particular, e-mail and mobile telephone technology has enabled airlines to communicate very quickly with all of their passengers (albeit that these media are not infallible – for example, if messages do not get passed on by third parties who may have booked flights on behalf of someone else).

18. However, complaints about communication related in particular to difficulties in responding to a message from the airline, and to inadequate provision of updates. The AUC realises that operators also sometimes find themselves in an information vacuum at times of crisis. But they should consider advising passengers about the timing of their next update, even if that update merely confirms that they have no further news. That would help to alleviate passengers’ anxiety about missing out through not knowing what was happening. And it ought to result in fewer repeated calls to overwhelmed airline call centres.

19. In addition to concerns about timeliness of information and problems in communication, passengers’ feedback to the AUC raises concerns about whether or not airlines tell passengers of their rights under Regulation EC261/2004. This is not merely a legalistic or bureaucratic interest: the Regulation deals with the very practical problems that passengers face at the time of disruption.

20. For example, the Regulation states very clearly that when a flight is cancelled the passenger can choose to have a refund rather than wait for alternative transport arrangements. That is particularly important information at the time of major disruption: it gives passengers at least some control over their own situation – but only if they know about it.

21. At the time of previous disruptions, the AUC found that airlines were putting limitations on passengers’ rights that it believed were incompatible with the Regulation. For example, many said that new flights had to be taken within a short period of the cancelled flight – whereas the Regulation gives the passenger the options of "at the earliest opportunity" or "at a later date at the passenger’s convenience".

22. Separately from the Regulation, the AUC had felt, in previous disruptions, that airlines kept passengers hanging on too long before telling them if their flight was cancelled. It is understandable that airlines would not want to give refunds to large numbers of passengers at the very time that they were incurring significant additional operational costs. But the uncertainty was very hard on passengers. And the AUC had wondered whether offering the early opportunity for a refund might also help the airlines because it would leave them with fewer passengers to re-accommodate once they resumed operations.

23. In both cases (limiting rights and early refunds), the AUC had contacted individual airlines to urge them to adopt a more passenger-friendly approach. Its impression, from passenger feedback and from its own website research and contacts with airlines, is that they were indeed more accommodating this time around. Different types of carrier responded according to their business models, but the different approaches had their merits.

24. A number of major carriers had adopted approaches that gave passengers control over whether and when to cancel their reservations at an earlier stage than previously. Many set out clearly arrangements on meals and accommodation. Where a carrier made an early decision on cancellations, it may not have pleased all passengers, but many would have welcomed the certainty against which they could make alternative plans.

25. The AUC expects to receive large number of complaints in the coming months from passengers who were affected by the disruption and who have not been satisfied with their airline’s response to their subsequent complaint. As well as dealing with the individual complaints, it will use the data from them as feedback for discussion with operators, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the Department for Transport, as appropriate.

26. Following other recent disruptions, many passengers were out of pocket even after airlines had reimbursed expenses according to their own assessments of claims. Airlines were slow to process refunds even where there was no dispute as to the sum that the passenger was due.

27. Many of these claims fell within the scope of Regulation EC261/2004. The extent to which passengers face similar problems this time around, or to which airlines honour their obligations under the Regulation more generally, is something that the AUC will wish to monitor. The AUC will pass on data on this as appropriate to the CAA, to assist it in its role as the UK’s nominated body for enforcement of the Regulation.

Conclusion

28. The AUC’s tentative conclusion is that airlines and airports are very well aware of the impact of disruption on air passengers. They do indeed work hard to learn from each individual episode and to mitigate those impacts for the next time. But passengers’ experience of the snow of December 2010 suggests that there may be some way to go in taking forward those lessons before it might be reasonable to conclude that bad weather happens, and that airlines and airports have done all that could reasonably be expected of them under the circumstances.

February 2011