Opinion: Government’s Atol question time yielded no answers

Opinion: Government’s Atol question time yielded no answers

Chris Photi, partner, White Hart AssociatesThe Department for Transport (DfT) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) jointly hosted the Atol Reform Stakeholder Event at CAA House yesterday.

The ‘star of the show’ was to be the Minister for Transport, Theresa Villiers MP. Even though the event lasted less than 75 minutes the Minister was unable to devout more than 15 minutes of her valuable time to this CAA-determined ‘critical event’, thus avoiding the potential of some tough questioning from the travel industry.

I cannot be the only one who is irritated by government officials who make fleeting visits to serious travel events then always have something more important to attend to. If this is such a significant development in Atol reform, surely Villiers could have set aside a little over an hour to properly address and respond to what was an august body of individuals from the travel industry?

One seasoned travel entrepreneur whispered to me as she departed, “Has Elvis left the building?”

CAA chair Dame Deidre Hutton, opened proceedings by frankly admitting that Atol “had not kept pace” with the changing face of travel and that only a third of departing UK Holidaymakers, circa 19 million people, were now covered by the scheme.

She indicated that the Atol reform proposals where designed to remove the Air Travel Trust (ATT) deficit of £42 million within three years, a statement reiterated by Villiers later. The consultation indicates two years – the DfT and CAA’s timings and estimates seem to change almost hour by hour.

Villiers described the Atol reform proposals as a “fairer and more robust model”, which it clearly cannot be without airline participation. She said the proposals intended that the Atol Protection Charge (APC) scheme be “financially self-sustaining within three years” and that further reform was being explored to be implemented once “the deficit was eliminated.”

Woolly references were made to looking at the models applied elsewhere in Europe, alongside pledges that more detailed work would be undertaken by the CAA in late 2011 and in 2012 in relation to agent for the consumer and airline holiday sales being drawn into the Atol scheme – albeit requiring primary legislation change which brought with it “logistical challenges for a radically reforming government”.

After a tedious and unnecessary review of the proposals, it was question time. The event panel comprised Richard Jackson and Simon Froome from CAA and Kate Jennings and Tom Oscroft from DfT. The majority of the questions raised were by the usual suspects – the leading counsels from the Big Two, Abta and the Association of Atol Companies (AAC).

Jackson proved the most adept at responding – always controlled, eloquent and measured while demonstrating a nifty side step that Jonny Wilkinson would be proud of.

Clearly issues remain regarding Atol reform. Simon Bunce of Abta highlighted significant concerns over the proposed implementation timescales which the panel were unable to refute. The likelihood of the consultation process and review completing and newly-drafted Atol standard terms being fully aired to allow implementation by 1 January 2012 is very slim.

Alan Bowen of the AAC made some telling points about the new proposed ‘Right to Fly’ arrangements replacing existing ticket provider rules. He asked why ‘flight-only’ sales of scheduled airline tickets should be subject to the £2.50 APC levy when the the reformed scheme would provide no protection of advanced monies – and when no repatriation would be needed as the airlines would bring the consumer back in the event of operator failure anyway.

The panel was simply unable to provide a coherent answer. The truthful answer of course would have been “We just want the money.” Sadly this part of the proposal is disingenuous and legislation “through the back door”.

The whole event was little more than a damp squib. Villiers announced at the outset that she was shortly to depart on her own holiday. The question I was itching to ask her was “Did you book an Atol protected one?”


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