A leading industry lawyer has accused the government of reneging on a commitment to cut regulation and suggested Atol reform proposals appear aimed at stopping travel firms acting as agents for the customer.
Field Fisher Waterhouse partner Peter Stewart, who regularly acts on behalf of Abta, said changes to the Atol regulations announced in February imply companies which sell in this way have been misleading customers.
Stewart said: “You would think the sole reason for these regulations was to deal with people acting as agents for the consumer.”
He told an Abta travel law seminar in London: “If the regulator feels travel companies have mislead consumers or have been mis-selling under the regulations there should have been a raft of prosecutions. I am aware of none.”
In fact, Stewart said: “The practice [of agent for the consumer] has been going on for some time . . . [and] if some arrangements are covered by an Atol and some are not, that is fine so long as it is clear.”
He said: “There is nothing in the Atol regulations that prevents a company acting as an agent for the consumer. It is nothing unlawful.”
Stewart added: “The government is keen to say it is moving away from regulation, but it is going the other way.”
He also criticised demands from some in the trade that non-Atol holders be required to make clear when bookings are not protected, saying: “There is no requirement to say to a customer, ‘You don’t have Atol protection’. There is no justification for those who chose to conduct their business differently to complain about others taking a different, but wholly legal, approach.”
However, Stewart said a company acting in this way would need to make clear it was a ‘travel facilitator’. “Everything would need to back that up. Just having something in the terms and conditions would be insufficient. Everything would need to be consistent. Two lines in the terms and conditions would not work.”
Department for Transport head of aviation policy implementation Kate Jennings rejected Stewart’s argument, insisting the reforms were not aimed at businesses acting as agents for the consumer.
She told Travel Weekly: “Agent for the customer is a legitimate business model.”
Jennings added: “A lot of what Stewart said reflects our attitude. It is not a big issue. But it has to be clear.”
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