MPs have called for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to be given beefed-up powers to hold airlines and tour operators to account after up to 10,000 British holidaymakers were forced to evacuate the wildfire-ravaged island of Rhodes.
Current and former members of the Transport Select Committee urged the Government to strengthen the industry regulator by allowing it to impose fines on airlines and operators that flout laws.
It comes after tourists who escaped the Greek inferno claimed they were “abandoned” at the airport as they struggled to get through to customer service lines or tour reps.
Others said they were jetted into Rhodes then forced to sleep in the airport terminal for more than 30 hours, sent to makeshift evacuation centres as their hotels were closed, or left in boiling-hot planes for hours due to delays.
Last week, a Department for Transport-commissioned review of the CAA recommended ministers should consider giving it the power to impose financial penalties if an aviation-related business breaks consumer rights law.
In June, the Government published new proposals to protect airline passengers, including financial penalties for breaches where appropriate.
i understands the Government plans to legislate when parliamentary time allows to give the CAA additional powers to enforce aviation consumer rights.
Currently, however, the CAA has no power to directly fine carriers, and no airline has been fined for breaching consumer law in the past 20 years.
Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, who recently left the parliamentary committee, said the CAA should be doing more to take firms to task but “in crucial areas they don’t have the powers”.
He added: “To be fair to them, they have been pleading with the Government to be given them for years, as has the select committee, but this godawful administration has done zilch.”
Mike Amesbury, Labor MP for Weaver Vale, called for greater interventionist powers “for airlines and operators to see the CAA has got real teeth” with consequences including fines.
He said: “We’ve got a really ridiculous situation where airlines have been continuing to fly, obviously very commercially minded, let’s say, into Rhodes and other places.
“I’d like to see that stronger interventionist approach from the CAA to make sure that tour operators and commercial airlines are actually focused on people’s health and well being, on their safety.
“To make sure there is a coordinated response to getting people out as well in these circumstances.”
The CAA’s current powers were “not more than guidance”, he added, criticising a “laissez-faire hands off approach” as well as the response of operators, some of whom he believes would have faced hefty fines after families were left stranded in Rhodes.
“There are a number which are, let’s say, not customer-focused. We’ve got a disaster here and it really is an emergency, and it is about life and death,” he said.
“And for people not be focused on that at this moment and still about maximising the profit margin, having no flexibility and then seemingly just abandoning people in their moment in need shows that powers have to be strengthened.”
He said he intended to raise the issue in the Commons after MPs return from recess, and to write to Transport Secretary Mark Harper.
EasyJet passenger who spent 30 hours in terminal: ‘We were in complete limbo’
Robert Small, 33, from Oxfordshire, spent 30 hours in the terminal at Rhodes Airport with his wife waiting for an easyJet flight out of the fire-hit island, and describes being left in “limbo” by the airline who had no staff on the ground to help.
Mr Small arrived at the airport on Saturday for his scheduled 9.10pm flight, and it wasn’t until 8pm on Monday, almost 48 hours later, that he and wife Kimberly got on a plane after contacting the UK consular official on the ground.
After his first initial flight on Saturday night was delayed, he spent the night trying to sleep on a crowded terminal floor. Initially, passengers were given €4.50 for food and drink, which was upped to €20 the next day.
He was then unable to get on two additional EasyJet flights which were supposed to be his replacement plane.
Mr Small said this was in part due to easyJet sending smaller planes than what was needed, and running out of flying hours for crews due to delays.
He was among a group of 27 passengers who were left at the airport and “no one knew what to do”. He said the airport handlers had to call easyJet to inform them of the leftover passengers.
Mr Small said there were no EasyJet staff on the ground to answer questions and provide updates’ and no contact information provided through the app. When he found a contact number on a website, he had to wait hours on hold to speak to someone.
“My main complaint would be there was no communication from easyJet when there was delays, they weren’t effectively communicating with the airport handlers… we were in complete limbo.
“You wouldn’t even say the customer service was poor, it was non-existent – so there was none. You couldn’t say it was good, bad or whatever, because there was absolutely zero customer service from them.”
Mr Small got in touch with the UK consular official on the ground who arranged for the couple to get their bags and go to a community centre 15 minutes away to sleep on mattresses. Despite easyJet saying the flights were full until Wednesday at 4am, the consular managed to get seats on a Monday repatriation flight out of the Greek island, Mr Small said.
He said he is intending to put in claims for refunds and expenses, but does not know if that will be accepted, as he has heard others in Rhodes have had refunds rejected after initially being denied boarding for the too small plane.
An easyJet holidays spokesperson said: “We’re really sorry that Mr Small’s flight home was disrupted due to the wildfire situation in Rhodes, and we regret that Mr Small didn’t receive the communications from us that he should have done.
“Due to the fast-evolving circumstances, our priority was to work with our team on the ground, and the local authorities, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our customers in impacted areas.
“We completely understand that this was an unsettling situation for Mr Small, and we’ll be in touch to apologise and discuss his compensation.”
Rory Boland, travel editor for Which?, said it was “inexcusable” that airline staff were not flown into Rhodes quickly to help passengers with their questions and provide clear communication.
He said he heard countless stories of airlines not providing information for passengers for a whole range of situations, including IT meltdowns or problems with the weather.
“Most passengers understand that in an emergency situation, things are not going to go perfectly…the issue arises when they can’t communicate with the airline which is uncontactable and it leaves the passengers not knowing what to do, it’s completely unacceptable,” he told i.
He added that “there isn’t, if anything, the CAA can do in this particular situation.
“It can’t stop Ryanair flying. What it can do is make sure airlines are providing proper care for customers, food and water and accommodation, when their flight is delayed.
“And that refunds are paid promptly. But given some airlines regularly break those rules and face no action that may not happen.”
Mr Boland said there were thousands and thousands of cases blocked up in county courts for people seeking refunds or compensations from airlines.
In some cases airlines ignored orders from dispute resolution bodies and courts to provide the refunds. “We have excellent consumer law protection, but it’s only as helpful as the enforcement behind it,” he said.
i has contacted the CAA for comment.