Airlines that break the law by not helping customers when flights are delayed or cancelled should be fined, consumer rights groups and online travel agents have said.

In a letter to the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, the consumer rights group Which? and leading online travel agents called for the aviation regulator to be given more powers to act amid flight cancellations.

It comes after a summer of travel chaos due to strike action and the devastating effects of fires on Rhodes and other Greek islands. Travellers have found themselves out of pocket when routes are disrupted or abandoned.

The letter to Sunak, co-signed by the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO), and online travel agents loveholidays, On the Beach and Thomas Cook, is calling for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to fine airlines directly if they fail in their legal duty to customers.

Which? said that although airlines were not always directly responsible for problems that arise, they had a number of legal responsibilities to their customers that are frequently ignored. These include ensuring passengers are quickly rerouted – with a rival carrier if necessary – or refunded when their flight is cancelled and providing assistance such as adequate accommodation or meals depending on the length of the delay.

Rocio Concha, Which? director of policy and advocacy, said: “Thousands of passengers have been subjected to unfair and in some cases unlawful treatment by airlines – and enough is enough. We’re calling on the prime minister to show he is on the side of holidaymakers by giving the aviation regulator the power to issue substantial fines to airlines when they flout the law.”

Which? said it had heard from countless travellers this year who felt let down by their airlines, or suffered poor customer service, with more than 1,000 consumers submitting evidence to an independent review of the CAA.

In a recent survey by the consumer rights group, almost half (45%) of air travellers who suffered a delay reported no staff being available to assist them. Where staff were there, almost a fifth of respondents (19%) felt that they were not helpful.

The Department for Transport and an independent review of the CAA made recommendations for the regulator to be given stronger enforcement powers, but Which? said No 10 had failed to give any indication of when legislation would be brought forward.

Other countries have taken stringent action against airlines found to be breaking the law. The US issued a $1.1m (£863,901) fine to British Airways for failing to refund passengers during the pandemic.

Last month, the CAA announced enforcement action against budget airline Wizz Air, after reports that passengers were having difficulty obtaining refunds and compensation. The CAA previously raised concerns about the airline in December 2022.

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Although the CAA is now taking enforcement action, the regulator is reliant on undertakings from Wizz Air to comply. If the airline does not, the regulator’s only recourse is court action.

Paul Smith, joint interim chief executive at the CAA, said: “We have long called for a stronger enforcement toolkit to bring us in line with other UK regulators. The plans recently announced by the government would achieve this and help ensure that the CAA is better equipped to hold the industry to account in meeting their obligations to passengers.”

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