Have you had a bad experience with an airline over the last few years? Sadly, you are not alone.
I regularly hear from readers who are furious with airlines that are hiking prices for things that used to be free, refusing to refund or are just not answering the phone when things go wrong.
In fact, so widespread are problems with many airlines that I’ve been taking part in a new campaign designed to force the industry to change for the better. And you can get involved too.
As part of the campaign, a white paper commissioned by online travel agent On the Beach launched this week, calling on the Government and regulators to step in and stop airlines from treating their customers unfairly.
Here’s what our campaign found – and what needs to change.
Over the last few years, some airlines claimed to the media that they had been issuing refunds that weren’t being passed on to holidaymakers by travel agents. However, it now turns out that in many cases, that simply wasn’t true. This forced travel agents to pay refunds and compensation for cancelled or delayed flights out of their own pockets.
In fact, as I write this column, the High Court has just ruled that Ryanair must pay £2million in unpaid refunds that were outstanding to one travel agent alone, that they had somehow not got round to paying out. As I’ve often mentioned in this column, compensation for delayed and cancelled flights is the law. The fact that some airlines have flouted these rules and have had to be taken to court to pay up emphasises what we need much tougher regulations – and fines for businesses that don’t play ball.
When you book directly with an airline, you don’t have many options should things go wrong – and some are much better than others when it comes to sorting out problems. However, if you book with a travel agent that sell packaged holidays you can get ATOL protection. This is a vital extra layer of support for holidaymakers if there’s a problem with a holiday before you travel or while you’re on holiday. Yet our research found that a number of airlines are trying to cut travel agents out of the equation by refusing to take their credit card payments, introducing additional layers of authentication, using scare tactics to put people off booking this way and hiding some seats and deals.
Another reason why some airlines seem to be so keen for their customers to book direct is because they can hide the true costs of flights by doing so. If you’re shopping around online you might be attracted by the cheapest flights available on a comparison site, but by the time you’ve finished booking online, that price can increase dramatically.
I recently booked a flight to France with a low-cost airline that cost me around £150 for a return. But by the time I’d paid for a standard hold suitcase and a cabin bag – yes, that’s now a thing – along with the cheapest seat allocation, I’d racked up a whopping £160 in extra charges.
One of the biggest complaints that I hear from holidaymakers is they feel trapped in to using airlines that they hate – because they have a monopoly on some regional airports, or they’re the only airline that flies to a specific airport. In fact, our research found that half of holidaymakers said airlines treat their customers badly because they can get away with it. A further three quarters of people felt regulators weren’t holding airlines accountable for their behaviour and want them to be formally investigated.
It’s clear that airlines can’t be left to police themselves or ‘do the right thing’. So it’s time to toughen the regulations so we all get treated fairly and equally. I’ll be talking to regulators, policymakers and the Government about this very issue in the coming months. But why not let your MP know how you feel too?
Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist.