Iain Osborne, Director, Regulatory Policy Group, Civil Aviation Authority
The extensive travel disruption caused by snow storms across Europe in December 2010 brought into sharp relief the importance of first-class contingency planning across all transport infrastructures. Some airports and airlines coped reasonably well with the extreme conditions, but others clearly did not. Thousands of passengers hoping to fly off for Christmas instead found themselves bedding down in terminal buildings. So, should airline passengers have the right to expect a high level of service, even in a crisis beyond an airport’s control? Is it fair to expect higher standards in aviation than, say, in railways when it comes to keeping passengers happy? Indeed, how do we go about assessing just what an acceptable level of service is in the first place, whether in a crisis or not?
Airports are much more complex entities than railway stations, requiring a more comprehensive set of arrangements when dealing with passenger welfare. Smaller airports are subject to market forces, with disgruntled passengers free to choose alternative departure points for future flights, and so are generally unregulated. If, however, you are flying long haul from the UK, chances are you will be flying from one of London’s three main airports, Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted. Whilst BAA’s monopoly position as owner of all three airports is now over, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) still has a very real role to play in regulating their service provision, handling as they do over half of the UK’s 200 million annual air passengers.
Positive passenger experiences are the desired outcome for all airport operators and airlines. Providing a good service to consumers relies on all parties at airports working together. The CAA, through its Regulatory Policy Group, works very closely with both airports and airlines to ensure passengers receive a favourable experience when using a UK airport. At the same time we, as the industry regulator, are responsible for enforcing a wide range of consumer protection legislation, including Denied Boarding Compensation, Persons of Reduced Mobility and general consumer law regarding the fair treatment of passengers.
To use Persons of Reduced Mobility legislation as an example: Airports are required to assist disabled passengers and those with reduced mobility, for example older people or those with broken limbs, from the point of arrival at the airport to boarding their plane. Co-ordination between airports, airlines and service providers is very important to ensure seamless service and a stress free experience for the passenger. The legislation has been in place for over two years and is working fairly well, although there are still some problem areas. The CAA is working with stakeholders to develop guidance on a range of issues, including transferring information about assistance needs and issues around decision making on service contracts. Just because a law is now in place does not mean the regulator and the industry can tick a box and move on to the next issue. We should all be aiming to constantly improve processes and procedures to achieve a better service for passengers.
As well as working to ensure passengers enjoy a smooth, hassle free experience from the moment of arrival at the airport, through to boarding an aircraft, regulators also need to oversee fair and open pricing policies to ensure consumers know exactly what they are being charged for. Some UK airports have recently introduced compulsory fees payable on a passenger’s day of departure, usually ranging from £5 to £10 per person. These additional fees are generally styled as development charges. The CAA has been working with airports and airlines to ensure that these types of fees are fully transparent to consumers. Passengers should be fully informed by their airline when they book their ticket that an airport fee is payable on departure. If the passenger is not made aware of it in advance they should not be forced to pay on the day. There are a range of other specific fees now in operation at several UK airports – from dropping off or picking up passengers outside terminals, to plastic bags for liquids, to fast track security queues. It is equally important these fees are transparent and that passengers have alternative options.
So what can the CAA, as the industry’s regulator, do to enhance the passenger experience at airports? The CAA is fully committed to working with the operators of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted to create the kind of consistent level of service that passengers deserve in 2011. The UK Government has already proposed reforms to give us a more flexible set of tools to allow us to place the passenger at the heart of economic regulation. As part of this policy shift, the newly created Regulatory Policy Group has refocused the CAA’s attention on four key areas: the economic regulation of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, as well as air traffic service provider NATS; enforcement of consumer legislation; providing expert policy and economic advice and analysis to government and others on airports, airlines and air traffic services; and collecting and analysing aviation statistics and survey responses. These changes will allow us to take a holistic approach when trying to improve life for the travelling public, ensuring that all potential regulatory options and tools are considered when deciding the ideal course of action to achieve best outcomes.
So, with all this in mind, we have been active in learning lessons from last winter’s disruption. We launched a major information gathering exercise with passengers and industry on the impact of the disruption and how the lessons learnt could translate into improvements in similar future situations. An industry seminar we hosted in March also considered the key areas where improvements could be made. Our findings will be published in a report later in the summer. We will specifically concentrate on how we can work with the aviation industry to minimise the number of passengers stranded at airports and to ensure that people who are stranded are looked after properly.
Operators of all sections of the UK’s transport infrastructure are frequently derided by the media for ignoring the wellbeing of passengers in pursuit of profits when trains, planes and automobiles do not run smoothly. If we are to remove airports from this charge sheet, regulators and operators genuinely need to put passengers at the heart of all we do. It would be naïve to think that things will never go wrong in a highly complicated business involved with the simultaneous movement of thousands of individuals. The key thing is that when processes do break down, passengers are the least affected. The people who pay good money for a good service have the right to expect nothing less.