Session 2010-11
Publications on the internet

Written evidence from the Civil Aviation Authority (AWC 28)

1. Context

 

1.1. December 2010 was the coldest month in the UK since records began according to the Met Office1 with heavy snowfall during late November and December causing significant disruption to air transport. At Heathrow, this disruption was felt particularly heavily between 18 and 22 December, when heavy snow caused extensive disruption for several days, with significant disruption also occurring at a number of other UK airports. (Annex A contains a breakdown of major UK airports’ annual passenger numbers and snow-related closure time).

1.2. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is the UK’s independent specialist aviation regulator. It regulates air safety; enforces legislation designed to protect passengers; economically regulates Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports; and sets airspace design.

1.3. In the submission below, the CAA comments on the passenger experience during the disruption, the limited ability of the current system of economic regulation to prevent unnecessary airport closures along with what might be done to improve it, and the regulation of aerodrome safety during and after snowfall. During disruption to aviation caused by severe weather, the CAA’s primary focus is on public safety – at no time during any of the disruption in November and December were the CAA concerned that safety was being compromised.

1.4. A number of separate but linked workstreams have recently begun to consider how the aviation sector responded to the December disruption. At the systemic level there is work from the Government’s South East Airports Task Force (SEAT), where a CAA-led sub-group examining how to improve delay and resilience performance is considering a number of issues relating to extreme winter weather, including how best to manage capacity reduction in such conditions and then ensure an efficient and timely return to full service. Furthermore, at the level of individual airports there is for instance David Begg’s Heathrow Winter Resilience Inquiry, on which the CAA is sitting as an independent observer.

1.5. The CAA is also undertaking its own work to consider the passenger experience during the disruption, examining what worked well for passengers as well as what failed to meet their needs The aim is to feed this intelligence into the work outlined above, and preparation for the forthcoming price control process at Heathrow and Gatwick. More information about this workstream is detailed below.

1.6. Although the CAA’s work is at a very early stage, information requested from airports and airlines immediately following the disruption has revealed several issues that will be closely considered as part of our work:

· Airlines’ performance in meeting their passenger rights obligations was highly variable, with some evidence that carriers with a strong local presence performed better.

· Preliminary evidence suggests that, in some instances, a lack of effective communication between airports and airlines and other airport stakeholders exacerbated the passenger impacts of the disruption.

· Road and (especially) rail disruption compounded problems at airports - even when airports reopened there were problems with staff and passengers getting to the airport.

· At Heathrow, there was an initial over-optimistic view taken about when flights would resume, which unduly raised expectations.

2. Passenger experience during disruption

2.1. The CAA has a range of responsibilities that work towards improving choice and value for aviation consumers. An important part of this role is to protect consumers when things go wrong with their journey, both in terms of ensuring that passengers’ rights are respected, and that all service providers at airports work effectively together to minimise the extent of any disruption and mitigate the inconvenience caused to passengers.

2.2. Against this background, the CAA identified a need to investigate passengers’ experiences at the UK’s airports, with a view to understanding whether there are lessons that can be learned to improve future performance and to inform the CAA’s enforcement of Denied Boarding Regulations (see Section 3 below). This work will bring together evidence from airports, airlines and, importantly passengers. The CAA is gathering information from the travelling public about their experiences through an online survey.

2.3. The survey aims to help the CAA better understand passengers’ views of how airports, airlines and other companies operating at UK airports, met, or failed to meet, their expectations. For instance, the CAA is interested in finding out how well passengers were kept informed about the disruption and whether people were told about their rights to assistance by airlines.

2.4. The CAA is keen to hear from as many people who experienced disruption as possible to try and build the best possible picture of what worked well and what did not, so it can work with industry to improve the situation in case of future disruptions. The survey work will be followed by a series of focus groups and / or seminars in March, followed by the publication of a report on our findings around Easter.

2.5. Consumers’ responses from the survey will feed into further work with Government, airlines and airports after Easter, as well as informing the development of the CAA’s regulation and enforcement priorities.

3. Passenger rights

3.1. When disruption occurs airlines are required under the terms of EC Regulation 261/20042 to provide passengers with assistance if they are denied boarding (essentially if flights are overbooked), if their flights are cancelled at short notice, or if they experience a long delay. This includes refreshments and, if appropriate, accommodation in proportion to the length of delay, together with access to communication and, if necessary rerouting. Passengers who make their own arrangements in such circumstances, perhaps because an airline is not in a position to do so, are entitled to reimbursement of reasonable expenses from the airline concerned. Package holidaymakers have similar rights to assistance under the Package Travel Directive3.

3.2. In addition, passengers may also be entitled to financial compensation if they are denied boarding, if their flight is cancelled without sufficient pre-notice, or they are subject to a long delay, unless the carrier concerned can demonstrate that the cause of such cancellation or delay was due to "extraordinary circumstances that it could not have avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken"4. Although there is no exact definition of "extraordinary circumstances", the Regulation cites adverse weather, security risks, flight safety shortcomings, strikes and air traffic control as examples.

3.3. In the UK, the enforcement of the Regulation is undertaken by the CAA under the terms of an agreement between the CAA, the Department for Transport (DfT), and the Air Transport Users Council (AUC). Under the agreement, the AUC’s role is to manage individual complaints and seek to secure a satisfactory resolution in cases where the Regulation is not being applied, and the CAA’s role is to investigate and consider enforcement action where it determines that there is, or may be, collective detriment to consumers.

3.4. Failure to comply with the requirements of the Regulation is a criminal offence that, upon conviction, is subject to a maximum fine of £5,000 per offence. However, such criminal sanctions are by nature a blunt instrument, which require a high evidence threshold. The CAA also has access to powers under Part 8 of the Enterprise Act 2002 allowing it to seek formal undertakings or an Enforcement Order from the Court to mandate changes in behaviour. In addition, the CAA’s role as the licensing authority for UK airlines offers informal routes to address identified deficiencies in policy and practice. The nature of the UK compliance structure allows passengers to pursue a claim directly through the small claims track of the County Court should they wish to do so.

3.5. In parallel with its work with the AUC, the CAA undertakes its own active monitoring of the experience of air passengers through reviews of the media, consumer websites, complaints and ad hoc airport inspections. During the period of disruption the CAA monitored what assistance major airlines provided to passengers and undertook two inspections at Heathrow.

3.6. Some airlines clearly made significant efforts to look after their passengers in difficult circumstances. For example, with hotel rooms in short supply, a number of airlines hired conference rooms for use as dormitories. In contrast, some airlines apparently failed to meet their obligations to passengers, either inadequately explaining their rights to them or not providing sufficient assistance. Where deficiencies were identified, the CAA took compliance action, but the scale of the disruption meant that it was extremely difficult to obtain timely information to allow such intervention to comprehensively address all of the issues affecting passengers.

3.7. The situation was further complicated by the uncertainty about when airports would reopen and by the constraints on the ability of airlines to provide rerouting, particularly on routes not regularly served, for the volume of passengers whose flights were disrupted. The time of year meant that passengers were more determined to travel than at other times, and even when airlines did their utmost to meet their obligations, the level of disruption inevitably causedfrustration.

3.8. The CAA will work closely with the AUC to analyse complaints received following the disruption, in order to identify areas which may require compliance action.

4. Current regulatory powers and future improvements

4.1. The CAA is responsible for the detailed economic regulation of airports ‘designated’ by the Secretary of State. Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted are the only UK airports that are currently designated, and together handle more than half of UK passengers. The CAA's role in economic regulation is very narrowly defined, does not include the flexible set of tools provided to other economic regulators, and limits the CAA’s ability to intervene during the five-year price control periods. This can prevent the CAA from acting in a timely manner, or as circumstances evolve, and restricts the ways that the CAA can intervene to address poor performance at these three airports.

4.2. The CAA can (and does) provide incentives to invest in facilities and equipment – including that which contributes to resilience – and to encourage the airport to raise standards. However, this form of (incentive-based) regulation is most suitable for influencing outcomes in normal operational circumstances.

4.3. In the Queen’s speech the Government proposed legislation to update the statutory framework surrounding the CAA’s work to regulate the UK’s major airports. The government's proposed reforms would provide the CAA with more flexible tools to regulate airports, which would strengthen the CAA’s ability to protect passengers and improve aviation resilience. In particular, the Government has proposed introducing economic licences, which would allow more proactive regulation, not just monitoring a five-yearly settlement.

4.4. The Government has also proposed giving the CAA powers to impose a much more robust set of obligations on the airport operator, backed with a credible enforcement regime. Whilst licence conditions can be no guarantee of resilience, they do provide a mechanism for the regulator to set clear expectations of the licence holder, incentivise delivery of these and offer a locus for intervention if there is systemic failure to deliver. For instance:

· Passenger experience: There could be a requirement to have in place a resilience plan approved by the regulator, ensuring that licensed airports take due account of the wider impacts of adverse weather events (e.g. impacts on wider transport networks that might keep staff away from work, or prevent customers arriving or leaving).

· Integration: The licence could require the airport to develop much clearer governance arrangements, specifying the rights and obligations of airports, airlines, groundhandlers and other stakeholders and provide a clear basis for co-ordinated action.

· Information: Lack of information to passengers caught up in operational problems is a particular concern because it creates anxiety and anger, perhaps even more than the underlying disruption. Licence conditions on airport operators provide a direct means for the regulator to ensure that any best practice is rolled out across the airport.

5. Aerodrome Operations

5.1. At all times aviation safety is of paramount importance. During the period of heavy snow, the CAA remained in close contact with the aerodromes involved. At no time during the period was the CAA concerned that safety was being compromised, and there is no intention that additional future regulations will impact on the CAA and industry’s safety priority.

5.2. The CAA issues requirements and guidance to airport and aircraft operators regarding the safety of aircraft operations during winter conditions. Following disruption during winter 2009/10, the CAA convened a number of cross-industry ‘Winter Wash Up’ meetings to assist the industry and the CAA in learning what worked and what did not, and to share best practice. These meetings were well attended from all areas of industry and identified that there are often differing expectations of service levels from different stakeholders: for example airports, airlines, ground handlers, Air Traffic Control, pilots, and passengers. Best practice methods of sharing and promulgating information to stakeholders were also discussed.

5.3. From a safety regulation perspective, the overriding message was that irregular reporting of the actual runway condition by aerodromes and ATC was the most pressing issue to be resolved.

5.4. As a result, the CAA formed the Winter Information Group (WIG) in summer of 2010, consisting of a smaller number of representatives from industry (Prestwick, Edinburgh, Birmingham & Stansted Airports, British Airways, easyJet, Thomas Cook & NATS). Based on sound science and work that has been ongoing for a number of years at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the WIG drafted guidance to aerodrome operators5, aircraft operators6 and air traffic controllers7 on information to be passed to pilots regarding runway conditions. During November and December’s disruption, the WIG’s work assisted in ensuring that accurate and relevant information was available to flight crews.

5.5. Tactical decisions concerning continuing aerodrome operations during adverse weather, including closure for snow clearing and re-opening criteria, must be left for aerodrome operations duty staff at the time. UK aerodromes have for many years operated a ‘back to blacktop’ policy (i.e. clear snow from the movement areas such as runways and taxiways), which is a goal supported by the CAA. However, although this is the usual policy, there may be circumstances where it is possible to keep the runway open with some contamination. In such circumstances the need for accurate measurement and promulgation of information is emphasised.

5.6. Some airlines and other stakeholders question why some countries allow operations on snow contaminated runways whilst others, such as the UK, do not. The main issue is whilst friction can be measured with a degree of accuracy on compacted snow and ice, and thus aircraft braking action predicted, this is not the case on wet snow and slush – the precipitation typically experienced in most of the UK. Temperatures must be well below freezing for considerable periods in order to give an estimated braking action of Medium to Good on compacted snow and ice.

5.7. The CAA has been working in conjunction with ICAO, FAA, EASA, aircraft manufacturers, airlines, aerodromes, friction experts and other manufactures for a number of years to resolve braking action and information promulgation issues. A trial is being conducted this winter at six UK aerodromes evaluating a method of estimating braking action using actual runway conditions. The trial is based on an FAA trial conducted in 2010 and 2011. Results from the UK trial should be available in July.

6. The Quarmby Review

6.1. Following the disruption caused to the transport system by harsh weather during winter 2009/10, the then Government commissioned a review of the situation by David Quarmby in March 2010. In October last year, Quarmby’s final report on the Resilience of England’s Transport System in winter was published. The Report contained one recommendation to the CAA, that:

· Recommendation 22: That the Civil Aviation Authority considers how it might develop its currently published performance data to improve the presentation, commentary and interpretation of airline performance information, to inform passengers and the market and encourage improvements across the industry.

6.2. Since the report was published, the CAA has made statistical information on the CAA website easier to locate and has also published a simple guide for consumers explaining how they can obtain punctuality information on their flights. The CAA is already undertaking market research to identify which information passengers find valuable, including aspects of service quality. Additionally, the SEAT subgroup on resilience will make recommendations on the topics of Punctuality, Delay and Resilience which will inform any further improvements to the presentation of punctuality data. However, without the ability to require information from airlines and airports, the amount of comparative data the CAA is able to publish is limited. This type of Information Power is proposed as part of the Government’s reforms to the CAA’s regulatory framework. In anticipation of this, a project is underway to refresh the CAA website and market research is being carried out to scope what information is of most use to consumers.

February 2011


[1] http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/news/releases/archive/2011/cold-dec

[1]

[2] http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:32004R0261:EN:HTML

[3] http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:31990L0314:EN:HTML

[4] Section 12: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:32004R0261:EN:HTML

[5] http://www.caa.co.uk/docs/33/srg_asd_NOTAL201009.pdf

[6] http://www.caa.co.uk/application.aspx?catid=33&pagetype=65&appid=11&mode=detail&id=4382

[7] http://www.caa.co.uk/application.aspx?catid=33&pagetype=65&appid=11&mode=detail&id=4273