Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Rising airline customer complaints prompt global legislators to act

by Joanna Plushinska and Allison Lampert

LONDON/MONTREAL (Reuters) – Nicoletta Dodova is one of a growing number of disgruntled airline customers. After buying his mother and niece airline tickets from Sweden to Macedonia last year, their flight was canceled and they ended up at an airport more than two hours away. She is still waiting for compensation.

Official data from regulatory agencies shows complaints against airlines have reached record levels or near record levels in countries such as Canada and Germany since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted and travel resumed.

The growing number of disputes between passengers and airlines globally is driving new legislation and calls for stricter enforcement of existing regulations to protect consumers.

“If they (airlines) have not paid, they are not following the law,” Dodova said. “They need to be held accountable.”

Rising energy, labor and other costs could put upward pressure on airfares as payment rules tighten.

Lufthansa’s payouts alone are set to rise from 25 million euros in 2021 to 331 million in 2022, the German airline group told Reuters in previously undisclosed figures.

Legislation is being reviewed in Canada, while the US government is writing new rules and the European Union is pushing for stronger enforcement of its existing regime.

The pressure is building to act as some areas are expected to break summer travel records this year after long airport lines and back-up luggage pile-ups last summer.

Airlines fear a mess of conflicting regulations and want those responsible for services outside their control in the industry to help bear the cost of compensation.

European airline group Airlines for Europe (A4E) said compensation had become increasingly cumbersome and the current rules left much to be interpreted. It is demanding reform of the law.

Aviation analyst James Halsted said that, although higher fares have helped carriers offset a variety of rising costs, “it is in the airline’s best interest to keep passengers happy even when there is disruption.”

Lufthansa said in a statement that it has no backlog of customer claims and that refunds are usually paid within the statutory seven days that apply to airlines operating in Europe.

Director General Willie Walsh said global airline body IATA asked governments to help avoid fragmented regulations and improve services, “rather than separating airlines, as recent proposals in Canada and the USA have done.” “

Transport Minister Omar Alagbara told Reuters Canada is promoting shared accountability by providing new access to performance data that airlines can use when negotiating service agreements with airports.

Some consumer advocates agree with Dodova that the rules are not properly enforced.

“The law is not a problem,” said John Oberlin-Harris, a British Airways passenger waiting nearly a year for a refund after a flight delay caused him to miss a connection at India’s Hyderabad airport , forcing him to return to England.

British Airways said it works extremely hard to resolve matters in a timely manner when claims are raised. UK law determines that the amount of compensation payable depends on whether any delay was the fault of the airline.

Sweden’s national consumer disputes body decided in March that Dodova was owed 800 euros in compensation from Hungarian budget carrier Wizz Air. The airline said it is in touch with him and is making further efforts to improve customer service.

Passenger complaints are clogging up courts and regulatory agencies in Germany, the UK, Canada and the US

In Germany, the arbitration board at the federal justice ministry, which mediates between consumers and airlines, said it is dealing with 46% more complaints than in 2019, before the pandemic.

German courts reported more than 70,000 cases last year, an increase of almost 40% in cases involving passenger complaints.

One industry official said airlines in Europe are losing a big chunk of those battles.

Consumer Watchdog Which? Citing an official register of judgments in March.

In the US, the Department of Transportation (DOT) sees a 55% increase in complaints from airline passengers in 2022.

The US is writing rules that would be proposed by the end of the year that would require airlines to compensate passengers for long delays or cancellations under their control.

After two consecutive summers of travel chaos, US airlines are scrambling to prevent massive flight disruptions this summer due to surging demand.

North of the border, the Canadian Transport Agency, a quasi-judicial tribunal responsible for enforcing existing passenger return requirements, has a record backlog of 47,000 complaints. It’s so high that Canada wants to charge airlines if they pass on unresolved complaints to the agency.

In Europe, intermediaries such as AirHelp, which assist consumers in obtaining refunds or compensation, have grown in popularity. AirHelp said active claims were nearly three times higher in 2022 versus 2019 and that number could continue to grow with an increase expected this summer, said Tomasz Pavliszyn, CEO of AirHelp.

Airlines have refused to foot the bill for cases that are not their fault.

The European Union has long angered airlines with its sweeping consumer protection law, which offers payments of up to 600 euros for delays or cancellations of three hours or more.

“As a passenger, you all know the airline canceled my flight,” said Jeff Morrison, president of the National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents Air Canada among others.

Morrison said the cost of air travel in Canada could well go up because of the new fees and compensation requirements.

($1 = 1.3372 Canadian dollars)

(Additional reporting by Ilona Wiesenbach in Frankfurt and David Shepperson in Washington; Editing by Ben Kleiman and Elaine Hardcastle)

Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters,

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