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Darren Jones MP speaks out on airlines’ unfair additional charges

Yesterday I spoke in Westminster Hall to highlight the issue of airlines’ additional charges, as they potentially break consumer law.

WATCH the full video here, and read my full speech below:

Here is the full text of the speech:

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and I congratulate Vicky Ford on securing this debate and on her excellent opening remarks. I declare my interests, as in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: previously I was a legal counsel at BT responsible for, among other things, consumer law compliance.

The UK is a leader in consumer rights, exemplified, as Luke Graham said, by the Consumer Rights Act, in which we went above and beyond European requirements, but that direction of travel has been, in my view, driven by the European Union. As we prepare for Brexit, whatever that might mean, it is vital that we protect both our current legal framework and our future policy commitments to maintain strong consumer protections in the UK. If we maintain access to the European single market, as is my preference, ensuring equivalence in consumer law in the future will be vital.

In my previous role, I attended the annual consumer law conference in Brussels, hosted by the European Commission. I was there on behalf of not only business but consumer groups and other stakeholders. It was agreed, among a very large group of stakeholders, that the consumer law framework provided by the European Union and legislated for here in the UK was pretty good. The key issue, however, was enforcement of those consumer rights. It is vital that we keep that in mind in this Parliament too, not only through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, but in what we do next, after the date of Brexit.

I have had the pleasure, or misfortune depending on one’s viewpoint, of rewriting and simplifying consumer terms and conditions for TV, broadband, mobile services and such like, hence my declaration at the top. Having to take out liability clauses, disclaimers and warranties and trying to reach, as I did in that example, for Plain English Crystal Marks and simplifications for consumers brings us lawyers out in a bit of a cold sweat. We must call on businesses in a regulatory-friendly manner to innovate in the way they communicate with customers. We know that customers tend not to read even a short number of pages on terms and conditions, so how can we ensure that, where the law already provides, they are made aware of particularly onerous terms? I, for example, commissioned a short video explaining that in two minutes. Whether anybody watched the video, let alone read the terms and conditions, time will tell.

From my own experience, we must have two aims—first, that customers understand what it is they are signing up to, which is the law today, and secondly, that they know how to enforce their rights and that they choose to do so. Although this is an issue across many sectors, I will make some remarks today about the airline industry, which is topical because of the issues with Ryanair in recent weeks. As the hon. Member for Chelmsford said, millions of constituents across the country fly to the European Union every year. Although we must protect important safeguards on cancellations and flight delays through Brexit, we must also remember the enforcement of domestic consumer rights.

Many of our constituents suffer the annual annoyance of additional charges for printing boarding passes, booking seats, or getting a bag on to a flight when they thought those things were included. Many airlines market through comparison websites, which may require further regulation in future. They show the single fare-only price without the additional charges. So when customers think about getting the best deal for their flights, sometimes they are unaware that the airlines may be bulking out their revenues by stinging customers with additional charges at the point of service.

Additional charges in themselves are not unfair or a problem, but when many customers do not know about them until it is too late or have no idea how to enforce their rights when they have been subjected to unfair treatment, such charges become a problem. I myself have experienced that problem. On a recent flight to Iceland with Wow airlines, my wife and I were forced to pay £75 to get our on-board luggage through the departure gate. That was more than the price of the ticket itself. As a consumer rights lawyer, I said, “Don’t worry; let’s pay the fee. I’ll complain and get a refund. I know this consumer law business.” However, I faced a bit of a problem.

It transpired that the acceptable size for on-board baggage on Wow airlines is significantly smaller than for other budget airlines, but the online order journey did not make that clear. I have a penchant for terms and conditions and compliance with online order journeys and am particularly astute at watching out for such things, but I was unaware of that difference. I challenged Wow airlines when I returned from a lovely trip to Iceland, but the customer service was awful. I had copy and paste responses to my question. Clearly, other customers had challenged it because the company gave copy and paste answers. When I challenged the detail of the answer, I was told that the company would no longer speak to me.

I therefore complained to the ombudsman. The consumer ombudsman, which is a voluntary organisation for certain sectors and businesses, approached the airline, but it refused to take part in the voluntary scheme. I then drafted a letter before claim setting out in detail, on a lovely Sunday afternoon, how the airline had breached consumer law in the UK, and I sent it to the chief executive officer in Reykjavik. Normally at this point I get a response, but on this occasion I got no response. I still hold that the additional charges point on baggage, where Wow airlines does not make it clear that its size restrictions are smaller than for other budget airlines, is a breach of consumer law. I feel that I and my constituents and others are due a refund for an unenforceable charge. Having raised the issue with the airline’s customer services team, the ombudsman, the chief executive and now Parliament, I look forward to a response.

The issue is not just about my story. In advance of this debate I posted a survey online to ask my constituents to tell me their stories, which were broadly similar. Most of the affected customers who completed my survey were annoyed about the additional baggage charges and also about seat reservations. Of those charged for their baggage, 75% had used the bag that they used for on-board storage with other airlines, and they did not know they could not use that bag on the airline that imposed the additional charge. Some 60% did not know about the charges at the point of booking, or they might have measured the suitcase. Again, these are unenforceable additional charges under consumer law.

To make matters worse, nearly 60% of complainants paid the fee, but then did not complain. A clear majority had no idea that they could go to the Civil Aviation Authority or others for support. Of all the customers in my survey who did complain, only one received a refund. Everybody else was either fobbed off or ignored.

Behind the statistics are families going on their holidays. Many of my constituents who use budget airlines and rely on other similar services save up throughout the year for a special time with their families during the summer holidays. It is a major expense in the annual budget of those consumers. The way in which the families are being treated is unacceptable.

But the issue with unaffordability comes at the departure gate when customers who use comparison websites and book flights they can afford based on the ticket price alone have no choice but to take the flight and go on their summer holiday with their children or go home. That is why additional charges need to be highlighted effectively and why families need the ability to enforce their rights.

One family told me a story about when they turned up at the airport in Bristol. They had not printed their boarding passes and were told they needed to pay £70 for them to be made available. If that was not bad enough, they then realised that they needed to pay an additional £75 for their children to sit next to them because they had not paid for the seat reservations. Why should families have to pay to make sure that their children can sit next to them and pay for the printed boarding pass when it is perhaps available on their phone? Again, those customers knew nothing about the charges and were stung as a consequence of the lack of compliance with consumer law.

Some sectors are better than others in their compliance with consumer law. The best brands, as we have heard this afternoon, understand that building consumer trust is good for businesses and that putting the customer first is therefore a sensible strategy. Under the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 and the Consumer Rights Act 2015, with the introduction of the concept of digital goods and services, we are making strides forward, but we must recognise that the law is already becoming out of date in the way in which the new digital economies are working.

To go to my original point, as we prepare for whatever Brexit means for the UK, it is vital that we not only protect our current framework of consumer law but that we work with our European colleagues to enhance the enforcement of consumer rights. We must continue to lead the debate as markets rapidly change and ensure that we protect our constituents not only under current law and in current markets but in future. I look to the Government to help us deliver that.

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