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Selina Watson

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The severe disruption of travel in the aviation industry in recent months has caused complete chaos for airlines and travellers alike. The numerous cancellations of flights have been a huge cost to many businesses and consumers, both financially and in respect of wasted time. At the time of writing, and as we head towards the end of the UK summer holidays during a period when the demand for travel has predictably been at its highest, we look at whether there is any sign of the situation improving and, if not, what airlines should be doing to minimise the negative financial and reputational impact.

Extreme staff shortages across the aviation sector coupled with a pent-up demand for travel has meant that airlines have been unable to charter enough flights to deal with the current volume of travellers keen to holiday abroad. This has resulted in thousands of travellers being unable to enjoy their holidays, many of which were already postponed during the Covid-19 pandemic and then due to the subsequent restrictions. Airlines have been struggling to fill hundreds of positions left vacant as a result of both redundancies and staff leaving during a time when flexible working options afforded to many employees across other sectors were simply not an option for the majority in the aviation industry. The consequent understaffing in airports, on flights themselves and behind the scenes, combined with an exceptional number of people wanting to get away following the lifting of travel restrictions, has meant that airlines are unable to cope.

It is little wonder, therefore, that airlines have found themselves in the unenviable position of having to deal with unprecedented levels of customer complaints and requests for compensation due to flight delays and cancellations. It would certainly appear that the (often last-minute) cancellations of flights are unavoidable but there are things airlines can do to soften the blow and lessen the effects these cancellations are having on their businesses.

The government has worked closely with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to come up with different strategies that will hopefully help to alleviate the huge strain currently on the industry. Additionally, the government has new regulations on airport slots and has established various groups to regulate and manage the levels of disruption. Some of the bigger airports even went as far as asking airlines to stop selling summer tickets, placing a cap on the numbers of passengers able to travel until early September 2022. These initiatives are being implemented to support passengers to ensure they are being treated fairly by airlines in the event of cancellations, together with new laws introduced to offer airlines increased flexibility when it comes to training staff and deploying them into roles more quickly.

In order to try and avoid having to pay out increasing levels of compensation, there are a number of things that airlines can do to help to keep their customers happy. These include:

  •  Ensuring the provision of a reasonable amount of food and drink to customers whose flights have been delayed, e.g. by way of vouchers
  •  Allowing for easy communication between customers and airline staff to resolve any issues, e.g. by agreeing to refund the costs of calls
  •  Ensuring accommodation is provided to passengers unable to travel, e.g. in nearby hotels
  •  Providing transport to and from the passengers’ alternative accommodation or homes (where it is possible for customers to return home) when flights are delayed
  •  Providing more than 14 days’ notice of cancellations to avoid compensation claims (with customers still being able to choose between an alternative flight or refund irrespective of how much notice has been given).

Airlines are obliged to offer some of the above points under the latest regulations but offering these earlier and ensuring that customers are kept fully appraised of the position may at least mean that the cost of compensation can be avoided. 

As we reflect on the last few months and recall the carnage that has been so frequently broadcast across many media channels, it would certainly appear that the situation is slowly improving. There is less hysteria in the news about disgruntled travellers, and flights and airports seem to be running more smoothly than they had been earlier this year. Time will tell whether enough has been done by the government and CAA to manage the travel crisis in the long term but in the meantime customers heading abroad in the near future should still prepare themselves for what may not be the best experience.

Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.

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If you have any questions relating to this article or have any legal disputes you would like to discuss, please contact the Dispute Resolution team on [email protected]

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