Airline customer complaints hitting record levels; world’s legislators vow to act

LONDON – Ms Nikoleta Dodova is among a growing number of dissatisfied airline customers.

Having bought her mother and niece airline tickets from Sweden to Macedonia in 2022, their flight was cancelled and they ended up at an airport over two hours away. She is still waiting for compensation.

Official data from regulatory agencies show complaints against airlines have reached, or neared, record levels in countries like Canada and Germany over 2022 since Covid-19 restrictions were lifted and travel restarted.

Rising numbers of disputes between travellers and airlines globally are driving fresh legislation and calls for tougher enforcement of existing rules to protect consumers.

“If they (airlines) haven’t paid, they’re not following the law,” Ms Dodova said. “They need to be accountable.”

The sharpening of rules for payouts could add to pressure on airfares from energy, labour and other rising costs.

Lufthansa’s payouts alone rose to €331 million (S$480 million) in 2022 from €25 million in 2021, the German airline group told Reuters, providing previously undisclosed figures.

Legislation is under review in Canada, while the United States government is writing new rules. The European Union is pushing for stronger enforcement of its existing regime.

Pressure to act is building, as summer travel is expected to break records in some regions in 2023 following long airport lines and piles of backed-up baggage last summer.

Airlines fear a mish-mash of conflicting rules and want those responsible for services out of their control in the industry to help shoulder the compensation costs.

European airline group Airlines for Europe (A4E) said compensation has become increasingly burdensome, and existing rules leave too much to interpretation. It is calling for reform of the legislation.

While higher fares have helped carriers offset a variety of rising costs, “it’s in the airline’s interest to keep passengers happy even if there are disruptions”, aviation analyst James Halstead said.

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

The International Air Transport Association (Iata) called on governments to help avoid fragmented regulations and improve services, “instead of singling out airlines, as recent proposals in Canada and the USA have done”, its director general Willie Walsh said.

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

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