Law guide: Complaints and disputes

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Flight services in the UK

Flight services in the UK

Flight services in the UK are coordinated by a number of individual service providers, from travel agents who book the flight, to airports and airlines.

UK airports and their responsibilities

Airports are managed by different operators, such as Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited, which owns and operates London Heathrow.

Airport operators are responsible for almost all aspects of the day-to-day running of the airports they own, such as providing airport security and ensuring the health and safety of the people travelling through them.

The airlines themselves fulfil other responsibilities, such as:

  • Cargo
  • Check-in
  • Provision and fuelling of the aircraft
  • Passenger safety and catering on board the aircraft
  • Boarding of passengers (including those with special needs)
  • Hold baggage handling (from check-in through to delivery at final destination)

Functions carried out by agencies are:

  • Air traffic control - National Air Traffic Services
  • The import/export of goods - HMRC (Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs)
  • Passport control and asylum issues - Home Office UK Visas and Immigration

Security regulations

The Department for Transport has issued regulations that define what we can and can't take through security. These apply to anyone travelling from any UK airport.

Before you book your ticket, make sure you find out which travel documents you need for your destination, such as passports, visas and inoculation certificates. If you don't have the right documents, you could be barred from getting on the plane or, if you manage to board the plane, you may be refused entry into the country when you arrive. You won't be able to claim a refund if this happens.

The best way to make sure you have the right documents is to contact the embassy or high commission of the country you're travelling to.

Charter and scheduled flights

Flights are either chartered or scheduled. It's important to distinguish between the 2 to determine who you need to complain to if things go wrong.

Flights are chartered when the entire aircraft has been booked for a particular destination on a restricted basis, e.g. once or twice a week. On the other hand, scheduled flights leave at regular scheduled times, such as daily, with each seat on the flight available for sale.

Charter airline companies operate their flights on behalf of a single tour operator, or a number of tour operators sharing the same aircraft.

If you travel on a charter flight, your contract will sometimes be with a tour operator, rather than an airline. Generally, you'll be bound by the tour operator's terms and conditions, which in turn will bind you to the airline's conditions of carriage.

If you travel on a scheduled flight, your contract will be with the airline.

In-flight services

Unless it's specifically stated in the airline's terms and conditions of carriage, airlines have no legal obligation to provide:

  • Meals or refreshments
  • In-flight entertainment
  • Toilets and washing facilities

Therefore, passengers who have serious medical conditions for which they must have specific foods or eat at specific times should always carry the necessary food with them.

Regulating airlines and flights

The Civil Aviation Authority is the UK's aviation regulator, controlling all flight paths and aircraft routes at UK airports. As well as regulating airlines, airports and National Air Traffic Services (NATS), the CAA are also responsible for setting airport charges at the London airports.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is the governing body that regulates the airline industry.

Regulating tour operators

If you book more than one element of a holiday through one organiser, it will be classed as a 'package holiday'. The organiser, which will normally be the travel agent or the operator of the travel website, will be responsible for problems with services provided in a package holiday, such as problems with the charter flight or accommodation. For more on this see below.

Passenger rights

The Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018 impose 3 main types of obligation on package travel organisers in order to protect travellers:

  • The organiser is responsible for the performance of each part of the holiday, including the parts provided by third parties;
  • Protection against their (the organiser's) insolvency;
  • The obligation to give information to consumers clarifying the product and associated protections.

If your holiday is protected by the Air Travel Organisers' Licence (ATOL), you're protected from losing money or being stranded abroad if your tour operator goes out of business. ATOL will refund you or arrange for you to finish your holiday and get home.

Package holiday providers must provide cover protection of this sort:

  • If the holiday includes a flight and the organiser is established in the UK or outside of the European Economic Area (EEA), protection will be in the form of an ATOL (Air Travel Organiser's Licence).
  • If they're established in the UK or outside of the EU and the holiday doesn't include a flight, they must provide financial protection via a bond with an approved body, through insurance or by paying traveller money into an independent trust account.
  • If they're established elsewhere in the EEA, they'll provide protection in line with their country's regulations.

If you're flying from the UK or EU and your flight is overbooked, delayed or cancelled, you're entitled to claim a fixed amount of damages.

For more information about passenger rights, see the following sections:

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