UK travellers are being forced to wait months and even years to get a refund for cancelled or delayed flight as the industry warns that the problems at airports will not be fixed in time for the summer.
Sue Davies, head of consumer protection at Which?, told the business, energy and industrial strategy committee that some UK airlines are taking a very long time to pay compensation claims.
“It can be a very lengthy and complicated process for people that can take months or even years. I think the worst example we have is the Ryanair one, which it will take about five years for people to get the compensation they’re entitled to,” she said.
“People know very little about their rights. Airlines are required to tell them what their right are but they don’t always do that explicitly or obviously.”
Travellers are entitled to compensation if their flight arrives three or more hours late. However, they are unlikely to receive any remuneration if the delay is not due to the airline. For example, bad weather or security issues.
The amount of compensation customers receive changes depending on the length of delay and the journey distance.
For delays of three hours or more getting to your destination less than 1,500km away, it is £220.
For delays of three hours or more between 1,500km and 3,500km, it is £350.
For delays of four hours or more and over 3,500km, it is £520.
If the delay reaches five hours, you do not have to board the plane.
If you do not board, Citizens Advice say the airline has to provide: a full refund for the flight, and a full refund for other flights from the airline that you won't use in the same booking, eg. an onward or return flight
If you are part-way through a journey, they should provide a flight back to the airport you originally departed from.
Should you board the flight, you will be eligible for £520 in compensation.
Davies said that it can be “unbelievably complicated” to pursue this issue with an airline.
“Even when a consumer has a decision that goes in their favour it is not even the case that the airline will necessarily pay up. We’ve got lots of people coming to us who are then having to pursue this through the small claims court.”
Some of the thousands of people whose flights were cancelled or delayed during the half-term travel chaos have been told they will receive no compensation, leading to calls for a change to the way passengers are reimbursed ahead of what looks to be a chaotic summer for airlines.
It’s quite incredible that many airlines within their terms and conditions are breaking the law, with apparently no consequences.
Travel journalist Simon Calder said the success of a compensation claim might also vary depending on the airline.
“Ryanair (RYAAY), if they feel like the term goes ‘bang to rights’, they will just pay up in a few days without question. EasyJet (EZJ.L) has this bizarre system where your flight is cancelled and if they believe it was due to extraordinary circumstances they will say: ‘It was caused by traffic control or bad weather so therefore you have no claim against us’. But if they don’t say any reason for the cancellation, then you know you can claim, which is odd."
Sophie Deckers, chief operating officer, easyJet, said the airline made 2,000 staff voluntarily redundant once the pandemic began, including 1,400 in the UK.
That included 1,000 cabin crew and 300 office staff, but no pilots — they were offered part-time contracts instead.
Calder said British Airways (IAG.L) has cancelled the most flights, taking about 20,000 seats off the market each day.
They are followed by easyJet, which has been cancelling flights much closer to takeoff. Ryanair and Jet2 have fared best, Calder added.
Lisa Tremble, chief corporate affairs and sustainability director of BA, said the airline had to take action to secure its future.
She said BA was losing £20m per day when that decision was taken, its schedule was 5% of 2019 levels, and there was no vaccine in sight.
The industry has admitted that the problems at UK airports will not be sorted in time for the summer.
“Unless we work together, no,” said Oliver Richardson, National Officer for Civil Aviation at Unite, told the committee.
Jude Winstanley, managing director of UK & Ireland at aviation services company Swissport, said he agreed.
Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, hopes it will be better but it won’t be totally fixed. Daniel Brooks, of Virtual Human Resources, says it won’t.
BA, easyjet and TUI insist they are doing everything within their power to avoid summer holiday disruption.
Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, explained that shortages of security staff led to the big queues suffered by passengers this summer.
“The industry was decimated. We’ve had two years of virtual non-operation," she said.
“Furlough helped but lots of people didn’t stay, we couldn’t keep them on. Re-recruiting with what I would describe as very, very short notice, is difficult because they’re very skilled.
“As you would appreciate in our industry, safety and security is our top priority (so) there’s increased vetting for those sorts of staff.
“Shortages have played a particular role, certainly in the kind of queues at security that you saw earlier on, hopefully beginning to improve.”
Watch: Airline refunds: What are your rights as a consumer?