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Civil Aviation Authority consults on dispute resolution

Consultation means listening and reacting – but have they done that?

When consumers have a problem getting a refund from an airline they can go to an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) provider, who will decide whether the consumer or the airline is right in a dispute. The decision is binding on the airline. The current system is not working well and is under fire from a number of consumer champions/organisations to improve.

Consultation takes off

On 17 July 2020 The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) launched a consultation on ADR which closed on 25 September 2020. The ADR process is meant to ensure that passengers have a place to go to arbitrate in cases where the airline and consumer are in dispute. In October consumer champion Helen Dewdney revealed that the CAA had not informed any stakeholders such as the Ombudsman Association for which all Ombudsmen are members nor other consumer rights bodies. When this was brought to the CAA’s attention it extended the deadline although it still did not inform stakeholders despite saying that stakeholders had not received the original consultation due to an IT error. [1]

The findings report was published [2] on 18 February 2021 and the responses were published in full on 4 March 2021.Aeroplane in sky with clouds

Does CAA favour the airlines?

The CAA was criticised for not consulting with consumers but it attempted to justify this decision saying that “The CAA does not consider that pausing the process to issue a public consultation is proportionate in the circumstances or will achieve the speedier outcomes for consumers that the ADR scheme is intended to achieve.” And yet it consulted solely with the airlines, which is clearly biased

It would appear that the CAA has in fact completely ignored all consumer voices. There were 13 responses and 8 were published in full: A response from one of the two ADR providers, one airline, 4 consumer champion individuals/organisations, the Ombudsman Association and the Rail Ombudsman, which operates the only current Ombudsman scheme in travel (Rail). All the consumer champions, including Which? and the Northern Ireland Consumer Council, called for there to be a single ombudsman.

Call for a single ombudsman

The CAA has consistently refused consider a single Ombudsman, despite concerns being raised by Which? [3]  the Ombudsman Association and in the Ombudsman Omnishambles and More Ombudsman Omnishambles reports. [4]

For example, in its response to the consultation, The Consumer Council Consumer Panel said:

“Although placed on the Citizen Space of the CAA website, it has clearly not been drafted or presented with citizens or consumers in mind. There is little excuse for this. The substantive proposals have been under consideration by the CAA for nearly a year. This is nevertheless a public consultation and the CAA should be and be seen to be, consulting everyone: ADR schemes, airlines and airports, consumers, consumer organisations, and other stakeholders such as claims management companies and specialist lawyers and legal firms.

Charging a fee – adding insult to injury?

ADR entities are allowed to charge consumers a fee (£25), returnable if the consumer wins the case. This has been criticised, as it acts as a barrier and could put consumers off using the service. In its response the CAA said:

“The CAA acknowledges that there is an ‘in principle’ argument that ADR should be free to the consumer at all times. In traditional regulated sectors, such as financial services, energy, etc, where participation in ADR is mandatory for businesses, it is more straightforward to implement ADR in a way which is free to consumers at the point of use.”

However, this is NOT the case. Other voluntary schemes, such as The Motor Ombudsman and Dispute Resolution Ombudsman, are voluntary schemes and do not charge.

This position from the CAA is one that you would expect from a trade association, not a regulator! They know it’s best practice but are clearly not going to do it!

Calls for a single Ombudsman in aviation

There have been calls from various stakeholders over many years for a single mandatory Ombudsman in Aviation. The CAA has stated that it feels that the ADR regulations prevent them from making ADR mandatory, or approving a single provider, and that neither can be achieved without legislation. Whilst legislation to appoint a single Ombudsman would be welcomed, it hasn’t stopped Ofgem adopting a policy position to only approve one provider, or prevented single mandatory ombudsman schemes being established in both the rail sector and the new homes sector in the absence of legislation.

A spokesperson for the Ombudsman Association said:

“Whilst we welcome the CAA’s stated desire to strengthen the current system of redress in the aviation sector, the small alterations they have proposed do not go far enough to meet the needs of aviation customers, as the OA and other organisations highlighted in response to their consultation. It is clearer than ever that a single mandatory ombudsman is required to provide effective redress in the aviation sector and to help drive the improvements that the CAA are trying to achieve. We will continue to engage with Government and other stakeholders on the need for a single mandatory ombudsman in the aviation sector.”

The rail Ombudsman comments

Kevin Grix is the Chief Ombudsman of The Dispute Resolution Ombudsman, which runs the Rail Ombudsman, operating now for nearly three years. He offered to share the experience of working with the Department for Transport, stakeholders, the regulatory body and members to set up a new scheme with the CAA. The Chief Ombudsman is the longest serving in the country and led on the creation of this new scheme. His preference is for a collaborative approach, eliciting buy in from companies and from consumers/consumer champions.

Grix says “It is no coincidence that regulated sectors in this country favour the Ombudsman model, not only because of the extra layers of protection that they provide – but also because of their now proven track record of helping industry to improve and raise standards. There seems little merit to me in resisting this model.

Consumer campaigners call for change

The Ombudsman Omnishambles report  and More Ombudsman Omnishambles both called for a single mandatory ombudsman per sector. The latter report in particular evidenced the higher standards required of an Ombudsman than any other ADR provider and called for the approval bodies to action this.

Which? was critical of the consultation too. It called for a more ambitious approach that included establishing single statutory mandatory ombudsman.

Citizen’s Advice has already called for mandatory membership of an ADR scheme for airlines in its April 2017 report Confusion, gaps, and overlaps. [5]

Independent review flawed

The consultation report states that in 2020 the CAA commissioned Verita to carry out an independent audit of the two CAA-approved ADR bodies for assurance as to the quality and consistency of decision making and to determine the extent to which these decisions are transparent.

However, Verita was a peculiar choice, given that is has no experience in undertaking research in the consumer arena. [6] The company undertook no research whatsoever with consumers, airlines or consumer organisations. It literally only looked at information given by the ADR providers! This approach is obviously flawed.

Helen Dewdney, The Complaining Cow, believes that the consultation was a complete whitewash:

“It is quite clear that the CAA restricted who was able to respond and then completely ignored anyone who spoke on behalf of consumers. The CAA should be impartial and not favouring airlines. There appears to no reason why there should not be a single Ombudsman for airlines. A single mandatory Ombudsman would reduce confusion and provide higher standards for all stakeholders, including businesses and consumers.”

References

[1] CAA launches consultation and tells no-one…

[2] CAP2104: Amendments to the CAA’s policy for ADR applicants and approved ADR entities (CAP1324) CAA Decision

[3] Which? related articles

https://www.which.co.uk/news/2020/10/more-airline-passenger-misery-as-court-cases-could-take-years/

https://www.which.co.uk/news/2019/10/easyjet-passengers-lose-out-in-compensation-merry-go-round/

https://www.which.co.uk/news/2019/10/hundreds-of-ryanair-complaints-rejected/

https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/05/passengers-still-having-to-fight-for-flight-delay-compensation/

Which? press release where it called for a travel ombudsman:

https://press.which.co.uk/whichpressreleases/which-calls-for-overhaul-of-broken-airline-complaints-system-to-restore-damaged-trust-in-the-travel-industry/

[4] Ombudsman Omnishambles:  Serious unresolved issues affecting the operation of the ombudsman ADR system in the UK  and More Ombudsman Omnishambles: The UK ADR landscape 20 months on…

[5] CAB 2017 report Confusion, gaps, and overlaps.

[6] Independent expert audit of CAP 2104 Amendments to the CAA’s policy for ADR applicants and approved ADR entities – CAA Decision February 2021

The CAA consultation response CAP2104: Amendments to the CAA’s policy for ADR applicants and approved ADR entities (CAP1324) CAA Decision

The 8 responses published in full CAP2116: Responses to CAA Consultation on Policy for ADR applicants and approved ADR entities, CAP1324

 

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ADR Ombudsman Business Latest News

Complaining customers warm to responsive companies

Every year Ombudsman Services produces its Consumer Action Monitor. It undertakes research with consumers regarding complaints. This year it looked at the impact of Covid 19 on consumer complaining habits during March and September in 2020.

Figures released today (9 March 2021) by Ombudsman Services in its Consumer Action Report 2020 reveal that 83% of respondents agreed that a “Well-handled complaint increases my loyalty to a provider”.

Loyalty and complaint handling

10,149 consumers were asked about complaining to energy and telecom providers but it is likely that this would apply to other companies of all sizes too. Companies would do well to take heed of the findings. With it costing at least 5 times as much to gain a new customer as it does to retain one it is a very ignorant, arrogant, naïve or complacent (or mixture of any of the 4) company that does not pay attention to the value of good customer service.

From the Consumer Action Monitor 2020:

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A well-handled complaint is one where the customer has been shown empathy, listened to, understood, treated fairly and given a satisfactory response in a timely manner. But it is widely known that the telecom and energy sectors are the worst for doing any of these things!

During March to September 2020 consumers showed leniency and tolerance to providers, as they complained less than in the preceding year. However, the reasons for this are not fully discussed. For example, it could be that consumers were under stress in other areas and that complaining about a provider was taking a back seat.

Understanding of Alternative Dispute Resolution when needing to complain

There is a huge lack of consumer understanding about Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). Only 3% of consumers knew that providers had 8 weeks to resolve a complaint before it could be escalated to an ADR provider, such as an Ombudsman.

The CAM research asked consumers how long they thought companies had to resolve a complaint:

The number of respondents knowing exactly where to take a complaint was a shockingly low 25%. The lack of awareness of ADR and what is does was quite apparent.

Dispute Resolution: What it all means.

The CAM report asked consumers:

It was quite clear that consumers do not know or fully understand the time scales relating to complaints. A huge amount of work needs to be undertaken to raise the understanding of ADR for consumers. The reports Ombudsman Omnishambles and More Ombudsman Omnishambles outlined some problems with the ADR sector in the approval and monitoring of ADR providers and how the current and growing landscape is making things more confusing for consumers.

Vulnerable customers and complaining

The CAM report identified that during 2019 70% of vulnerable customers said that they would rather “suffer in silence” than complain. However, in 2020 this figure dropped. The number of those people identifying as vulnerable also decreased. The report suggests that this may be because of the support measures put in place during the pandemic. Whether these figures change once the support is removed will be interesting to see. I, for one, certainly don’t believe that it is because providers have upped their game and done the right thing in helping vulnerable customers. My 79-year-old mother was told by Sky that “no”, an engineer could not fit her new router and she should get someone to help. Bearing in mind that this was during lockdown, someone coming into the house would actually be breaching guidelines, whereas an engineer would not. Sky was clearly not supporting vulnerable customers in this case.

Green issues

Consumers showed a keen interest in green credentials and used relevant information when deciding a provider with which to contract. 65% of respondents said it was important for their energy provider to have good green credentials and 56% for telecoms. 44% of consumers said that energy and telecom providers must take green issues more seriously. There is, of course, much work to be done to ensure that the information is accurate in this area too.

The future for telecom and energy providers’ customer service

It remains to be seen if complaints from consumers will start to increase as we get through to the end of the pandemic. There could be a lot of movement in the sector as people become less tolerant or expect better deals and more redress in return for their tolerance. Certainly companies have a long way to go in improving service quality, especially for vulnerable customers. Expectations are likely to rise and providers are unlikely to improve quality in line. So, there should be more input from the regulators OFCOM and OFGEM to ensure that they do more to assist customers, especially those who are vulnerable. Consumers clearly expect resolutions to be quicker, therefore regulatory and approval bodies for ADR providers need to do more to raise standards and shorten these time scales, which were set long before emails were the norm!

It will be interesting to see how the green agenda pans out. Will it continue to grow as a factor in choosing a provider or will consumers make more economic decisions post pandemic?

One thing is for sure, energy and telecom providers need to up their game in customer service!

Further information for consumers

All you need to know about complaining to telecom providers

All you need to know to make a complaint about energy

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For more help, advice, tips, information and templates buy  How to Complain: The Essential Consumer Guide to Getting Refunds, Redress and Results!

 

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