Passengers need increased protection from the kind of international travel disruption caused by the global Covid-19 pandemic, UK MPs have said.
UK regulator the Civil Aviation Authority should be given “more teeth” to allow it to fine airlines that do not refund customers when required by law to do so, they recommended.
The call by the House of Commons transport committee comes after almost two years of disarray for the travel sector during the coronavirus crisis — where quarantine restrictions, testing and locator forms have been part of efforts to tackle the Covid-19.
Last week, another report heavily criticised the UK government's travel restriction policies, saying they were imposed by different government departments with no overall assessment of their impact.
The National Audit Office report exposed “a confusing mishmash of different parts and programmes” which left the travelling public “confused and bewildered".
Even after restrictions were dropped, airports have still been hit with chaos.
London's Heathrow Airport and Manchester Airport have been beset by huge queues, with airlines such as British Airways and easyJet forced to cancel dozens of flights each day due to a shortage of staff.
In a report published on Monday titled UK Aviation: Reform for Take-Off, the transport committee called for ministers to publish an aviation recovery plan by June “as a priority” and for an airline insolvency bill to be introduced in the next session of Parliament to better protect consumers, employees and taxpayers.
The committee welcomed by ministers that travel restrictions will only be applied in “extreme circumstances” in future, and said that the government “must compensate the industry for the economic loss suffered”, if measures affecting the sector are reimposed.
Plans to ensure swift Covid-19 testing can be put in place for passengers to travel if required by other countries should also be established, the MPs said.
Huw Merriman, the Conservative Party MP chairman of the transport committee, said: “In the face of a global pandemic, today’s report acknowledges the difficult position faced by government.
“However, government action was inconsistent. It left industry and passengers confused and unable to plan ahead.
“This resulted in a severe economic deficit for the aviation sector. Thousands of people lost their jobs. Many more could not visit their loved ones.
“Now that government has removed all coronavirus-related restrictions on international travel, ministers must get on with protecting the sector against future economic shocks and reassuring passengers that future restrictions will only be implemented in extreme circumstances.
“Legislation is urgently needed to give the industry more flexibility to recruit new staff for the summer, to give the regulator more teeth to intervene on behalf of consumers and to provide protection from airline insolvencies.”
The report noted that some Ryanair passengers are still waiting four years on, after being affected by a 2018 pilot strike for compensation due to the airline legally challenging CAA enforcement action.
Responding to the MPs’ report, Paul Smith, consumer director at the CAA, said: “We have regularly asked for stronger consumer enforcement powers, including the ability to impose fines on airlines.
“This would allow us to take faster action when appropriate and bring our powers in line with other sectoral regulators.
“Proposals outlined in the government’s recent consultation on enforcement powers, which are supported by the committee, will — if implemented — improve passenger rights and equip the Civil Aviation Authority with better tools to act swiftly and effectively for the benefit of consumers.”
Consumer group Which? welcomed the call for stronger regulatory powers to protect passengers.
Director of policy and advocacy Rocio Concha said: “If the government wants to future-proof the aviation sector it must prioritise restoring trust in travel with reforms that deliver for consumers.
“Consumer trust took a battering during the pandemic as some airlines ignored their obligations on refunds and passengers struggled with confusing restrictions and a dysfunctional travel testing system.”
Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, said the report provided “welcome recognition of the devastating impact the pandemic had on aviation” in the face of “ever-changing” restrictions.
“We join the committee in calling for a comprehensive recovery package that allows our sector to recover sustainably and prevents the UK from falling behind our international competitors,” she said.
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “Our priority was protecting public health and these measures bought vital time for the roll-out of our successful booster programme as we responded to new and concerning variants.
“We also ensured they were in place for no longer than absolutely necessary and the UK was the first country in the G7 to remove all travel restrictions.
“In future, the government’s default approach will be to use the least stringent measures, to minimise the impact on travel as far as possible and these will only be implemented in extreme circumstances.”