The aviation regulator’s powers should be strengthened to fine airlines for failing to refund passengers for cancelled flights.

The call came today from consumer group Which? as it accused carriers of  nearly six months of “blatant disregard” of the law on refunds for cancelled flights during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Which? said it understood that only one application for an enforcement order against an airline has been made by the regulator since 2003.

This was against Ryanair in 2018, for refusing to compensate passengers for delays caused by planned industrial action by its staff during the peak of the summer holidays.

Two years on, the case has yet to be heard and may not come before a court until 2022. During this time the airline can continue to refuse to compensate consumers without penalty, Which? claimed.

The consumer champion is calling for the regulator’s enforcement powers to be strengthened and extended as part of its campaign to secure refunds for passengers affected by coronavirus.

This should include the ability to fine airlines, to enable the CAA to take “swift and meaningful action” against carriers that have repeatedly disregarded the law and their obligations to passengers.

Which? Travel editor Rory Boland said: “Without the ability to issue fines or take swift action against airlines, the Civil Aviation Authority has struggled to effectively stand up for the passengers it is there to protect.

“Several airlines already know this, and there’s a real risk some have felt empowered to break the law as a result – and without the threat of penalties, they may continue to do so.

“Trust in the travel industry has been battered in recent months, so passengers need a strong regulator they can count on.

“It’s clear serious reforms need to be made to the sector – as a first step, the government must take urgent steps to ensure the CAA has the tools it needs to effectively hold airlines to account.”

CAA director Richard Stephenson said: “Using the powers we currently have, we work with airlines to receive commitments and undertakings to improve performance for consumers.

“We have done this in many cases in recent years, including during our recent review into airline refunds during the coronavirus pandemic, which secured significant improvements for consumers, with call times and refund backlogs reduced.

“Receiving such undertakings is a formal use of our powers, and is the most immediate way of providing benefits to consumers as enforcement processes can take a considerable amount of time to complete given the potential for legal proceedings.”

He added: “We have called for more powers including the ability to impose fines in the past. This is something that would bring us in line with other sectoral regulators and would allow us to take stronger and faster action.

“Which? also has the same powers under Part 8 of the Enterprise Act when it comes to enforcement of consumer law, including Regulation 261/20014.”