The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have issued a joint letter to carriers, expressing concern that “consumers could experience significant harm unless airlines meet their obligations”.
The letter stated: “We are concerned that some airlines may not be doing everything they could to avoid engaging in one or more harmful practices.”
These include selling more tickets for flights “than they can reasonably expect to supply”, not always “fully satisfying obligations” to offer flights on alternative airlines to passengers affected by cancellations, and failing to give consumers “sufficiently clear and upfront information about their rights”.
The warning comes at a time of widespread disruption at airports caused by staff shortages, including long queues and cancelled flights, as the industry struggles to keep up with a surge in demand.
Both regulators warned they would consider enforcement action if they saw evidence of "consumers continuing to experience these serious problems".
“Images of queuing families, social media posts full of horror stories of people left stranded or getting cancellation emails on their way to the airport just hours before they were due to depart have left a bitter taste. The CMA has warned that any repeat this summer could force them to take action," Danni Hewson, financial analyst at AJ Bell, said.
“The level of service that’s been provided when disruption occurs and the fact many people have been left to fend for themselves, often at great expense. It has warned airlines that they need to think ahead and to take responsibility for customers who might not have the cash or the ability to get themselves where they need to go.
“Compensation must be paid quickly, and arbitrary limits shouldn’t be set on levels of compensation, plus travellers need to be kept well informed of cancellation policy and not find themselves struggling to pore over the small print.
“It’s about transparency and boosting confidence, both things which are in airlines best interests.
The CMA and CAA said they expect airlines to “not continue marketing tickets for flights if they cannot be reasonably confident they will go ahead”.
After a flight is cancelled, airlines unable to offer a “timely replacement” flight must give passengers the option of flying with another carrier, according to the letter.
But some companies ask passengers to make their own arrangements in these circumstances.
The letter stated: “We have concerns that in some cases, this is likely to breach professional diligence standards for those consumers who are not in a position to do so.
“For example, those who may be unable to: investigate or book alternative routes; self-fund the purchase of flight tickets and accommodation; or to afford to wait for reimbursement, would not be able to benefit from their statutory rights in the event of flight cancellation.
“We urge airlines operating this practice to quickly put in place mechanisms for these consumers to ensure re-routing is a viable option for them.”
The CMA and CAA also said passengers’ rights must be “presented clearly”, and consumers “should not be required to hunt for such information”.
Last month, the UK government temporarily relaxed rules around airport slots to allow airlines to devise realistic flight schedules.