The good people in what? – the Consumer Association brand – have strong views on compensation for airline passengers whose flights are delayed. Not a penny less is their attitude.
The context: if your flight arrives at the destination airport (arrival counted as the first door opening time) three hours or more late, you are usually entitled to cash compensation of between £220 and £520.
The intentions of the compensation system devised by the European Union 18 years ago were undoubtedly sound. But the legislation was poorly thought out and later interpreted strangely by the European Court of Justice in some strange ways – most notably concluding that a three-hour delay is equivalent to a flight cancellation.
Today the rules are absurdly binary. It doesn’t matter if you wait three hours or 30 hours, and the amount of money you earn depends on how far the flight is, not how much you paid for your ticket.
The Department for Transport (DfT) plans to make the system fairer for travel to the UK, with graduated compensation based on the length of delay and airfare.
What? disagrees: “We are asking the DfT to abandon the plans it has proposed to reduce the compensation that passengers are entitled to when domestic flights are severely disrupted.
“These changes would remove an important deterrent against bad business practices. For example, for a flight between London and Edinburgh with a total capacity of 180 passengers, an airline would have to pay up to £39,600 for delays of three hours or more under current rules.
“Under the government’s proposed scheme, the maximum payout is reduced to just £7,920.”
Leaving aside the question that Which? The calculation seems to suggest that the fare everyone pays is £44, you can be sure no airline wants to delay a flight by three hours – and there are plenty of financial penalties for that.
As one senior aviation figure puts it: “In any other sphere of life, a refund for a service failure is tied to the price paid for the product.
“This is the case with compensation schemes in the rail and maritime industries, which seem to work perfectly well.”
Take that London-Edinburgh trip. If I arrive half an hour late on a train, I get half my ticket back. Between one hour and two hours, the price of the one-way ticket is refunded. And above two hours, it’s the cost of the return trip. This applies to whatever the cause of the delay (which this week was an attempted robbery of a signal booth on the line near Peterborough).
On a plane, though, I get £220 (five times the £44 notional ticket cost), or nothing. The airline will understandably do everything possible to avoid paying, which means that the exact nature of the delay in the context of EC Regulation 261/2004 (covers flight compensation) could end up being argued by no-win, no-fee attorneys. . This is not free money: the cost ends up being reflected in airline tickets.
For travelers and the travel industry, Brexit was almost entirely damaging. Changing the rules for travel in the UK – where competitors are often the rail and maritime sectors – is the only opportunity to create a fairer system.