The new chair of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has said consumers must be reassured of their rights to refunds following the wholesale delays to airline repayments for cancelled flights during the Covid pandemic.

Sir Stephen Hillier, who took over as chairman in August, said the CAA’s powers “have not been adequate” and “giving us greater powers is essential”.

He also warned of the need to “calibrate the pace of recovery” by airlines following the rapid downsizing of the sector to avoid “potential risks” to safety.

In a speech to the Royal Aeronautical Society, Sir Stephen described the impact of Covid-19 as “profound” and said: “There are equally profound consequences we will be dealing with for many years to come.

“First there is the impact on consumers. We need to reassure consumers in relation to public health considerations. And we need to reassure consumers in relation to their consumer rights.

“The consumer protections in place at the start of the pandemic – particularly relating to refunds – were neither designed nor adequate to deal with the current situation.

“It has been a long and painful journey for far too many [and] what consumers will rightly tolerate even less is future repetition.”

He insisted: “We have expended an enormous amount of effort – within the powers we have – in helping ensure consumers get the refunds to which they are entitled.

“Even so, our current powers have not been adequate. Giving us greater powers to act is essential for consumers, and I’m pleased our position is supported by Government.”

Sir Stephen said: “I’m concerned that our effectiveness in securing timely refunds could be seen as an indicator of our effectiveness across the breadth of our responsibilities.”

He told the society: “We also have to be alert to and mitigate the potential safety risks inherent in our current situation. There has been drastic shrinkage, with the loss of many skilled and experienced individuals.

“I’m not saying safety will be compromised, but I am saying full awareness of the potential risks during recovery is the critical first step in the mitigation process.

“The risks during recovery will be greater than those during the rapid downsizing. We need to calibrate carefully the pace of recovery as industry accelerates to satisfy the pent-up demand for air travel.”

Sir Stephen insisted: “We have a good track record in many respects, exemplified not just by the CAA’s outstanding response to the collapse of Monarch and Thomas Cook airlines, but also by our world-leading performance in improving accessibility to air travel.

“But we tend to get judged by what doesn’t go so well.”

He said: “The statement I’ve heard most often over the last few months is ‘we need to look at regulation’.

“My response is: ‘I agree. But please tell me which part of regulation you have in mind.’ We need you to help us identify areas where you think there should be more flexibility.

“We know that across the sector it’s a struggle for survival. We are active in providing whatever support we can, and working with Government on the Aviation Recovery Plan.”

On Brexit, he said: “The CAA has been doing significant work since 2016 to prepare for the whole range of possible outcomes.

“I’m not going to say that as a consequence the situation is risk-free, but I can assure you we are doing all we can to mitigate those risks.

“We have contingency planning teams identified and on readiness to ensure we can respond quickly to any last-minute challenges over the Christmas and New Year period.”

He also highlighted the CAA’s role “in getting to grips with the greatest long-term threat to the resilience and viability of aerospace: de-carbonisation”.

Sir Stephen took over as CAA chairman from Dame Deirdre Hutton on August 1. He is a former Air Chief Marshal and RAF Tornado pilot and trainer who was Chief of the Air Staff from July 2016 to July 2019.

Dame Deirdre led the CAA for 11 years, having stayed on longer than planned to ensure continuity during and after the failure of Thomas Cook.