Simon Calder answers your questions on cancelled flights, airport security rules and rail strikes

Rail predictions

Q: I am interested in what LNER are likely to do in December over the next set of RMT strike days – particularly 17 December? How many Edinburgh to London services will there be? And what happens to those of us with advance tickets?

Are we automatically entitled to book a seat on another service, or what? We bought advance tickets through an agent that doesn’t seem to offer any option other than cancel for refund as far as I can see. We’ve got no choice but to travel that day.

Peter

A: As things stand, Saturday 17 December will be the last day in the RMT union’s pre-Christmas strike. Members working for Network Rail and 14 train operators (including LNER) plan to walk out in two 48-hour blocks: 13 and 14 December, followed by 16 and 17 December. (The expectation is that the intervening Thursday, 15 December, will be blighted with only a “strike service” able to run.)

Since the current series of national rail strikes began five months ago, LNER has consistently run daytime services on strike days on its core route from Edinburgh via Newcastle and York to London. I expect that will prevail if the next round of strikes go ahead – with trains every hour or two from around 7.30am to 6.30pm (last departure southbound at around 2pm).

Many people, though, probably including you, will be in the position of holding a ticket for a train that isn’t running. In that case I recommend you wait and see what LNER proposes. A week before the strike it should become clear what the options are. At this point you should be able to book a seat reservation for a train that is running. Turn up with your Advance ticket and I am sure you will be fine.

Having said all that, when I talked to the RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, on Thursday I sensed a strong desire to find a settlement and end these extremely damaging strikes.

My advice: don’t do anything for at least 10 days. But equally be aware that other strikes are happening. Train drivers belonging to Aslef are taking industrial action this weekend, and could call future strikes in December

Finally, if you book direct through LNER it is much easier to handle disruption – as well as collecting an effective 2 per cent discount through the Perks scheme.

Cancelled and delayed flights

Q: I had a TAP Portugal flight cancelled 18 months ago. I requested the refund to which I was entitled under the ticket conditions as they cancelled a flight – three times.

When I have requested or chased up a refund they have sent me a voucher. I am getting sick of calling and was wondering if I can explore a refund via other avenues?

Neither has the airline paid EU compensation.

Colin

A: To start with the last part first: compensation for a cancellation is payable only if you were notified less than two weeks before departure and the airline was responsible for grounding the flight. (Government actions to do with Covid, security or weather issues count as “extraordinary circumstances” and exempt the airline from paying out.)

A refund, though, is absolutely your entitlement within seven days under European air passengers’ rights rules. Plainly many airlines have simply ignored this obligation. Being repeatedly sent a voucher must be extremely frustrating.

Seven months ago MPs on the Transport Select Committee called on the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to “utilise its existing powers to challenge businesses and to pursue enforcement orders from the courts to tackle infringements of consumer rights in relation to refunds”. But so far nothing has happened.

But regulators at home and abroad do not seem particularly motivated to take action. Some European nations seem to continue to take the view that their airlines need support, and that turning a blind eye to infringements of legal obligations is a form of support.

Before Brexit, claiming from an airline in another EU state would have been a straightforward matter of obtaining a refund through the European small claims procedure, but the UK decided to end that option.

All I can suggest is that you keep going and make it clear to the airline that you will not accept anything other than your legal entitlement to cash back.

Q: I made a compensation claim to SAS Scandinvaian Airlines for a delayed European flight that caused us to miss a connection and arrive more than three hours late. But three months on they have not responded. What should my next step be please?

“Snoozing Badger”

A: I have heard countless similar stories. European air passengers’ rights rules are clear about what travellers are entitled to if their flight arrives three hours or more behind schedule. But enforcing the rules seems beyond the wit of regulators.

At present airlines seem to be taking the view that: “If we dawdle about giving people the money they are owed, then some of the travelling public will simply give up. Even if they don’t, there’s no real damage from delaying payment beyond a modest amount of reputational harm.

I have lobbied the Civil Aviation Authority and the Department for Transport about these issues and I hope there will be some swift action – from them as well as foreign regulators. But don’t hold your breath.

Jettison LAGs?

Q: What are your thoughts on the proposed ending of the 100ml limit on hand luggage liquids? Surely it will huge for the industry and travellers alike.

Rikard

A: Many airline passengers say airport security the worst part of the journey – in particular, the need to limit LAGs (liquids, aerosols and gels) to small containers and extract them from cabin baggage. The regulations were introduced hastily in 2006 as a temporary measure in response to the “liquid bomb plot”. Despite repeated promises to ease the rules they remain in place.

In 2019 Boris Johnson vowed the rules would be eased at major UK airports by 1 December 2022, allowing larger quantities and eliminating the need to have liquids separately scanned. Like so many other promises from the former prime minister, that will not happen as planned. But there are hopes that advanced CT scanners may be deployed in the 15 or so biggest UK airports by mid-2024 – 18 years after the LAGs rules came in.

I am not sure, though, that it will be “huge” for airlines and travellers. Passenger confusion is a constant problem for aviation security. It may be that your outbound trip in August 2024 from Heathrow, Gatwick or Manchester involves light-touch security (leaving your liquids and laptop in your cabin baggage) but the return journey does not. The inbound process could be slow and clunky, with many passengers falling foul of the non-conformity of rules and losing bottles of sunscreen or Scotch.

Also, the airports that are collectively investing hundreds of millions of pounds will seek a return. While the new tech should cut staff costs, representing savings for airports, they may well still plan to raise fees for airlines and their customers.

Ultimately the passenger should be able to walk unchallenged along a corridor flanked by detectors, barely aware that they are being checked. Checkpoints will still be staffed, but security personnel will be freed up to do what people do best: studying the behaviour of passengers and identify “persons of interest” for further investigation. But I will be surprised if this happens in the next decade.

Passport strike?

Q: Any idea what impact the border control strikes might have on travel through Heathrow the week before Christmas? Hopefully not much for outbound, and similar for inbound if the automated passport gates are operating fully?

Rich72

A: I am optimistic about almost everything to do with travel, but I am afraid that I can see the potential for serious disruption in the week leading up to Christmas if members of the PCS union working for UK Border Force decide to go on strike in their pay dispute.

There is limited scope for contingency plans. While managers can step in to some extent, and keep fingers crossed that the eGates remain in full working order, for a large number of passengers coming into the UK – particularly from outside the EU and North America – an encounter with a human frontier official is required. A few planeloads of arrivals at Heathrow could, I fear, snarl things up quickly. If queues get unmanageable, then the only solution is to keep passengers on planes, which means the aircraft are (a) blocking gates to later arrivals and (b) are not available to load passengers and cargo for their next mission.

At this stage, though, there is nothing that any of us can do except hope there is a settlement soon.

‘Vouchflation’

Q: Your current thinking, please, on whether you think airlines will extend vouchers (arising from 2020 Covid flight cancellations) that expire next year? That said, with inflation and rising costs of flights, the purchase power of these vouchers is falling fast.

Franch

A: You have touched on a really serious and increasingly significant issue. During the dark days of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of journeys were cancelled. A large number of people accepted vouchers for future use, and I calculate that the value held by British travellers is currently in the region of £5bn.

Initially airlines and holiday companies tended to issue them for about a year – but, when it became clear that Covid was going to afflict travel for a lot longer than that, they were extended. Currently I am holding vouchers for several hundreds of pounds with airlines which have been extended into 2023. I haven’t been able to use them, and as you say their value is declining due to the rising cost of flights: a trip to Egypt and back that cost around £300 is now selling at £646 – more than twice as much.

Things could actually get worse: with these “IOUs” soon to expire, expect a surge in demand driven by people who are keen not to lose the whole value of their voucher. This in turn will cause what I call “vouchflation”.

For cases like mine – where the flights actually operated but I could not travel – a voucher is generally the best you can hope for. But there may also be people who were persuaded to accept a voucher even for a flight cancelled by the airline. If you are in that position, then you could seek cash instead.

For example, British Airways says: “If you were due to travel with us between 9 March and 19 November 2020 on a flight that was then cancelled, we were unable to offer our full range of ways to access refunds at that time. If you are eligible, you can now get a refund online for the voucher you hold.”

Sales time?

Q: Can we expect the airlines to have their pre-Covid style sales in December? I’m particularly thinking of long haul.

Graham

A: An excellent question, particularly on “Black Friday”. Yes, I expect there will be some interesting deals on offer particularly from Boxing Day onwards, and if you have a particular destination in mind that involves a specific airline, it is well worth signing up for notifications.

But manage your expectations: at present aviation is at around 75 per cent of pre-pandemic scale. Demand is strong, which spells much higher fares than you and I would like to pay.

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