MPs have asked the Department for Transport (DfT) to explain why it did not follow the lead of several European nations and extend the legal deadline for issuing refunds during the coronavirus crisis.
In a report on the impact of the pandemic on the aviation sector, published on Saturday (13 June), the government’s transport committee urged ministers to consider whether new protections for passengers should be built into the forthcoming Airline Insolvency Bill.
Members also called on the DfT and the CAA to conduct a "speedy review" of the authority’s powers to ensure it can enforce the rights of passengers "in an effective and timely way".
"The collapse of air travel worldwide has taken an enormous financial toll on airlines and travel operators," read the report. "Smaller numbers of staff available during the crisis, either due to self isolation or because they have been furloughed, has further impeded the ability of companies to refund passengers in a timely manner.
"In responding to this report, the Department [for Transport] should clarify why an extension to the legal deadlines for issuing refunds was not implemented in the UK."
The report said the coronavirus pandemic has "exposed weaknesses" in EU and UK regulations covering flight and package holiday refunds. However, it also questioned why, after several EU countries promptly eased their refund regimes, no action has yet been taken in the UK after several months, despite the committee pressing transport secretary Grant Shapps on the matter as early as 25 March.
It also highlighted Abta’s criticism of the CAA for failing to explicitly, and publicly, confirm whether refund credit notes (RCNs) would carry the same protection as the original booking, despite "verbal confirmation" to that effect, noting also Abta’s warning the silence risked harming consumer confidence in RCNs.
"The government should provide reassurance to passengers by setting out clearly the circumstances under which a RCN or voucher issued by an airline is protected by the Atol scheme," added the report.
“Passenger confidence in airlines and travel operators, dented by unnecessarily difficult refund processes, must be rebuilt,| said committee chair Huw Merriman MP.
"We recommend the government considers whether new protections for passengers should be introduced ahead of future pandemics or other extraordinary circumstances.”
Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer welcome the report’s findings, and said the government must take urgent steps to develop a clear roadmap to restart international travel safely and help the industry out of the current crisis.
He added Abta looked forward to the CAA giving a statement making it "abundantly clear" that RCNs "evidence the financial protection of refunds that relate to package holidays under the ATOL scheme".
A DfT spokesperson said the department acted quickly to support the aviation sector, and would continue to work “at speed” to protect its long-term future.
The CAA declined to comment.