Airlines under fire for neglecting passenger rights after new report into August ATC failures

Pictured: Passengers stranded at a UK airport during the August 2023 air traffic control failures (Image credit: screengrab via ITV News)

Airlines have come under fire for failing to help passengers during the August 2023 air traffic control (ATC) system collapse in the UK.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) today published an interim report carried out by its Independent Review Panel into the airport chaos that left almost a quarter of a million passengers stranded at airports at home and abroad.

It is estimated that more than 700,000 travellers were impacted by the ATC system failures, which saw airports brought to a standstill.

According to the UK aviation regulator, 300,000 passengers were impacted by cancellations, while 95,000 were affected by delays of over three hours.

A further 300,000, the CAA calculates, were impacted by shorter days.

The new report criticises airlines operating from UK airports for the way they handled the crisis – including distributing “misinformation” about, and insufficient management of, passenger rights.

The regulator details that there “seems to have been some misinformation about passenger rights, with leaflets being handed out by some airports saying that the passengers had to make their own plans to get home with no offer of assistance from the airline to find alternative flights”.

Airlines also told customers that they “should claim reimbursement for any out of pocket costs”, without having offered vouchers or other upfront means to assist in the cost of refreshments or accommodation, the report said.

In one instance given in the report, a customer and her child were stranded abroad and had been handed a leaflet by their airline suggesting they should make their own arrangements to get home and then claim reimbursement.

A booking link was provided on the leaflet, but on that link the passenger could only find flights available four or five days later.

The airline told her that it would only reimburse for one overnight stay in accommodation but no more information was provided.

According to the regulator, the passenger incurred costs totalling £900 and was only offered a refund worth the value of the original flight.

But the CAA highlighted this was not a “universal experience” for all customers.

Citizens Advice says if passengers experience long enough delays, airlines have to provide food and drink, access to phone calls and emails, and accommodation if delayed over night – including journeys to and from the hotel.

It also says customers are entitled to compensation if their flight arrives more than three hours late and it is the airline’s fault.

Passengers told the panel that information should have been provided by airlines more promptly and that more frequent updates should have been issued, even if there was nothing to report.

Many travellers complained about the “shortage of visible and informed staff at airports” and the “absence” of any clear airport announcements.

Raising concern for the duty of airlines to uphold their passengers’ rights, Which? Travel editor, Rory Boland, told ARGS: “Passengers being left to pay for travel chaos and struggling to get their money back happens every time there is flight disruption.

“Consumers cannot continue to be left out of pocket for air traffic control failures, airline IT collapses or carriers overselling flights.

“We are calling on the government to give the Civil Aviation Authority the powers it needs to fine airlines when they break the law and fail in their responsibility to passengers.”

In its investigation, the CAA attempted to understand the impact the ATC system failures had on travellers through qualitative information.

But airlines refused the investigation panel access to passenger lists of affected flights on the grounds of data protection compliance.

It is also unknown the extent of costs incurred by airlines to help customers who were delayed or had their flights cancelled.

Ryanair alone stated it had spent more than £15m to cover costs such as alternative flights, suitable refreshments and accommodation.

The CAA said it is not yet clear what proportion of travellers received speedy reimbursement for the costs they incurred, but that this will be followed up in its next review of the August 2023 ATC failures.

It highlights the incident had “considerable financial and emotional consequences” for customers.