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Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) gets new Chairman

But will the UK’s airline regulator now regulate the sector properly?

The new Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Sir Stephen Hillier, starts his role tomorrow, 1 August 2020. He begins his new job amid a crisis in the aviation sector and at a time when the regulator is failing to regulate airlines that are knowingly and deliberately breaking the law.

Notably, as a former RAF officer, the new chairman has zero experience in customer-facing environments, zero experience in the commercial aviation sector and no background in consumer law.

CAA review

Yesterday the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) released its review into airline refund practices during the Covid-19 pandemic, including a list of 18 airlines that it investigated.

Only three – United Airlines, Jet2 and American Airlines – were found to be consistently processing cash refunds quickly, as required by law and having only a small backlog of refund requests. Under Regulation EC261/2004 airlines must refund in full the cost of cancelled flights within 7 days.

I am unsurprised by the CAA’s report and I am highly critical of the regulator’s efforts.

As part of the announcement of his appointment on the CAA website on 7 May 2020 Sir Stephen said “I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to help lead the Civil Aviation Authority through the enormous challenges which lie ahead: maintaining our excellent safety record and promoting the UK’s world-leading aviation sector, while dealing with the consequences of COVID-19 and guiding us through our departure from EASA.”

However, that statement makes no mention of airline passengers. It seems clear that the CAA is still favouring the airlines, rather than their long-suffering passengers, when it comes to enforcing prompt refunds for cancelled flights.

The CAA has a track record of being slow and ineffective. One only has to look at previous research, such as Civil Aviation Authority launches review of airlines’ allocated seating policies in 2018, where no action whatsoever has been taken on the findings.

In April 2020 the CAA was told about airlines issuing Refund Credit Notes instead of cash and when asked what action it was taking to address the problem, a CAA spokesperson simply said “If an airline cancels a flight they are legally obliged to refund the customer.”

Numerous requests for details on any regulatory action the CAA would take, and if vouchers would be covered if the airline goes into administration, went unanswered. At the time an ABTA spokesperson said: “We continue to stress in our discussions with the CAA, as the relevant enforcement body, that airlines are obliged to refund under Regulation 261 and under IATA regulations for IATA members.” Eventually, on the 18 July the CAA announced that the RCN would be ATOL covered if consumers chose to take one.

aeroplane in the sky

Virgin Atlantic is still breaking the law

The CAA review refers to many of the airlines making hardly any improvement during this time. For example, the notorious Virgin Atlantic, one of 14 airlines not processing refunds within an appropriate time frame:

“Virgin Atlantic has committed to reducing the maximum time taken to process a refund and it expects to process all claims made in August within 80 days, all claims made in September within 60 days and all claims made in October within 30 days.”

This is still illegal, yet the CAA is still not imposing any sanctions on Virgin Atlantic.

By contrast, Jet2, American Airlines and United Airlines have been consistently processing cash refunds quickly and with only a small backlog of refund requests.

CMA steps in where the CAA fears to tread

In stark contrast with the CAA, the Competition and Market Authority (CMA) took action in relation to two holiday companies that were not providing refunds promptly. As early as 5 March 2020 the CMA had initiated a taskforce to monitor businesses during the Coronavirus pandemic. 

On 30 April the CMA announced that it would look at 3 areas of concern: Wedding venues, holiday accommodation and nursery and childcare providers. By 9 June the CMA it had taken action to ensure that Vacation Rentals, the firm which operates the Hoseasons and brands, changed their coronavirus refunds policy to comply with consumer law and give cash refunds.

Concluding comment from the Complaining Cow

The CAA needs to do more and up its game.

Whilst most consumers will understand that airlines may not be able to refund within 7 days, they should not still be taking 30, 60 and 80 days.

Three airlines in particular have put the others to shame and are paying refunds promptly. This shows that what consumers are demanding is possible.

The CAA needs to ensure that the airlines are not furloughing staff who could be working to process refunds. I’d like to see the new CAA Chairman take a much stronger lead and ensure that airlines are fully complying with consumer law, without exception. Those that do not should have their operating licences revoked.

He needs to take firm and decisive action now.

If you would like to contact the Chairman of the CAA you can:

Email the CAA Chairman. This will also give you the contact details for other key CAA personnel.

For help with getting refunds see:

Travel in the time of Coronavirus – Your rights explained

Complaining about customer service Complaining about faulty goods

3 More habits of an effective complainer

Techniques to improve your complaining skills!

If you are not used to complaining, don’t like complaining, get fobbed off easily, but don’t like being out of pocket there are things you can do to help you improve your technique.

101 Habits if an Effective complainer book cover with logo


See  101 Habits of an Effective Complainer and for detailed help of laws, template letters information and advice get How To Complain: The ESSENTIAL Consumer Guide to Getting REFUNDS, Redress and RESULTS!





But in the meantime here are three more tips:

shapes border how to improve your complaining habits

1) Believe complaining effectively is not negative

Many people will say that complaining is negative, brings down your mood etc. This can be the case, when you are not effective. Do something about the complaint. That is being positive, moaning can be damaging and bring you and others down. Saying “I complained and I got my refund/repair/redress…” etc. is a very positive statement which can encourage others to complain effectively and get results.

Complaining is good for your health! When I wrote an article about this on LinkedIn years ago there wasn’t anyone who disagreed! Peter, who provides leadership coaching and mentoring, said “Complaining is NOT negative – if that’s not a double negative !! 🙂 but some people exploit that perception in order to make you feel bad about raising concerns etc. Great businesses see complaints as a way of raising their game. Bad ones shoot the messengers, in general.”

2) Point out helpful feedback

If appropriate to the situation, point out to the company to which you are complaining that you hope that your feedback has been useful to them in developing their customer service. This demonstrates that you are looking to continue shopping with them if they handle the matter well.

Gavin Patterson was CEO of the BT Group from September 2013 until February 2019. He spent an hour each day responding personally to customer emails. See Calling all CEOs: please read emails from your customers and learn about your own business.

He believes that customer feedback is the single most important category of information coming into the business.

3) Don’t be opportunistic

Effective complainers are not about seeing a complaint every time they go into a shop or receive a service. It is simply about complaining when things genuinely go wrong.

Remember The Complainers documentary on Channel 4 in 2014? The Complainers Giving Complainers a Bad Name?

There were examples of people who complained just for the sake of it who went on and on and on at the same people for trivial things and they made themselves look very silly! As The Daily Telegraph put it “the difference between a valid complaint and a cathartic lashing-out was one of several distinctions largely ignored by The Complainers.”


Cover of How to Complain updated 2019 large cow logo


For lots of help, consumer laws, advice and  templates GET THE BOOK! How To Complain: The ESSENTIAL Consumer Guide to Getting REFUNDS, Redress and RESULTS!