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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.

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.”

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.

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 Transport

CMA steps in where the CAA fears to tread

CMA investigates and takes enforcement action

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) should be the regulator for air transport in the UK. However, it is increasingly clear that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is doing the CAA’s job for them.

During the course of this year the CMA has taken action against a number of companies which were not giving full refunds where they were owed due to coronavirus cancellations.

This includes: Sykes Cottages and Vacation Rentals in June, Bijou Weddings Group in September and yesterday (15 December) the announcement that following CMA action, LoveHolidays had committed to pay out over £18 million to customers waiting for money back after their holidays were cancelled due to coronavirus.

CAA: A regulator that fails to regulate

In July the CAA reported on its airline refunds review. A number of airlines were found to be hugely failing in their legal duties and they gave commitments to the CAA to resolve the matters. For example, on 3 July, Ryanair published a set of commitments on its website about timescales for processing cash refunds. Ryanair confirmed that 90% of its backlog would be cleared by the end of July 2020 with all refund claims made in April to be processed by 15 July and most of the claims made in May to be refunded by the end of July. This statement has not been updated and just a quick glance on Twitter and in Facebook groups dedicated to Ryanair complaints shows that Ryanair customers are still waiting for refunds.Ryanair aeroplane in sky

Commenting on the review, Richard Moriarty, CAA Chief Executive said: “The airlines we have reviewed have responded by significantly enhancing their performance, reducing their backlogs, and improving their processing speeds in the interests of consumers.

“There is still work to do. We have required commitments from airlines as they continue the job of paying customer refunds. Should any airline fall short of the commitments they have made, we will not hesitate to take any further action where required.”

However, the CAA has failed to take any further action, appearing to believe that no further action is required.

CAA defers but the CMA brings action

It would appear that the CMA disagrees. Today, 16 December, the CMA announced that it was investigating whether airlines have breached consumers’ legal rights by failing to offer cash refunds for flights they could not lawfully take.

The CMA says “The investigation will consider situations where airlines continued to operate flights despite people being unable lawfully to travel for non-essential purposes in the UK or abroad, for example during the second lockdown in England in November.”

The CMA is aware that, in some cases where flights were not cancelled, customers were not offered refunds, even though they could not lawfully travel. Instead, many were offered the option to rebook or to receive a voucher.

The CMA says that it will be working closely with the UK Civil Aviation Authority as it progresses its investigation.  Its press release continues:

“While the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) leads on consumer protection in the airline sector, the CMA has undertaken extensive action in connection with cancellations and refunds during the pandemic and is well placed to support the CAA on these issues. The CMA and the CAA continue to work closely and share the same enforcement powers to tackle breaches of consumer protection law.

The CMA will now be writing to a number of airlines requiring information to understand more about their approaches to refunds for consumers prevented from flying by lockdown.

Following a careful analysis of this evidence, the CMA then will decide whether to launch enforcement action against individual airlines.”

It is quite clear that the CMA has had to step in and walk where the CAA fails to tread.

Paul Smith, Group Director of Consumers and Markets at the CAA, said :

“It is right that consumer rights are upheld throughout this period and we welcome this investigation from the CMA, which follows our review into airline refunds earlier this year. The CMA has been leading on a broad range of issues arising during the coronavirus pandemic and we will continue to work closely with the CMA in support of this investigation.”

This defensive stance from the CAA makes the regulator appear ridiculous. As the CMA states, it has the same enforcement powers as the CAA. But the CAA has done nothing to enforce anything since their review earlier this year. Airlines continue to flout the law and the CAA appears to have done nothing to ensure that airlines have kept to their June commitments.

No other regulatory body needs another organisation to step in to support their enforcement work. The other regulators, such as Ofgem (Energy), Ofcom (Telecoms) or the Office of Rail and Road (Transport) are able to enforce the law themselves.

So, why does the CAA need help? Because it is ineffective and unwilling to take on the airlines face to face. Has CMA simply had enough of watching this farce unfold?

Hopefully this action by the CMA will shame the CAA into taking further action by itself.

It is the job of the Civil Aviation Authority to investigate airlines but it has continued to take no action. The CAA has told me in the past

“Should any airline fall short of the commitments they have made, we will not hesitate to take any further action where required.”

However, time and time again it has not done so. The CAA has shown itself to be not fit for purpose. Instead it is finding in favour of airlines and continuing to allow them to behave illegally. The CAA has shown itself to be not fit for purpose. The CAA needs to use its enforcement powers to revoke airline operating licenses where airlines do not comply with the law.

Aeroplane in sky with clouds

Further information:

A new Chairman started at the CAA on 1 August 2020. But unfortunately the new chair, Sir Stephen Hillier, has been ineffective in tackling airlines that are continuing to break the law on consumer refunds.

CAA launches consultation and tells no-one… launched a consultation on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) but didn’t tell any stakeholders, as Which? calls for a single Ombudsman in the sector.

More Ombudsman Omnishambles report which looked at approval and monitoring of ADR schemes and followed Ombudsman Omnishambles which looks at the failings of regulatory bodies, including the CAA.

Ryanair tops CAA refund complaints

Getting help for Coronavirus cancellation claims and shopping help and advice for getting refunds and redress