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Passengers' Experience of Air Travel (HC 435-i

Transport Committee 28 Mar 2006

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Evidence given by Ms Tina Tietjen, Chairman, and Mr Simon Evans, Chief Executive, Air Transport Users' Council; Mr David Marshall, Head of Policy and Communications, Mr Simon Bunce, Head of Legal and Member Services, and Ms Susan Parsons, Trade Relations Manager, Association of British Travel Agents; Mr Oliver Richardson, Regional Industrial Organiser (Aviation), and Mr Roger Sealey, Transport Researcher, Transport and General Workers' Union.

Q38 Mr. David Clelland: Can I ask you about mishandled baggage? What proportion of UK travellers whose baggage goes missing are adequately compensated under the Montreal Convention?

Ms Tietjen: In terms of complaints to date the baggage complaints are way over 12 per cent.

Q39 Mr. David Clelland: What proportion are adequately compensated under the Montreal Convention?

Mr Evans: We only see those people who come to us, not having received satisfaction. Of those that we have, I do not have a breakdown on the baggage issue particularly. We could find it for you. The Montreal Convention really only provides for reimbursement of necessarily incurred expenses. People who have kept their expenditure modest whilst they were waiting for their delayed bag to be delivered tend to be the more successful ones in getting all of their money back from the airline. There is no provision for compensation to make you feel better or because of the stress you have suffered. A particular area of concern is when a bag is lost and is never seen again, which is less frequent an occurrence than it used to be because of radio tracking, for example. The Montreal Convention has a limit of about £800 which, if you added up the contents of a typical suitcase, would not cover replacement. Also, airlines are placing in there hurdles of burdens of proof, like insurance companies have. I think the answer to your question is probably a very small proportion of passengers whose bags have been lost are getting anything near replacement value. Those who are just looking for reimbursement of expenses whilst they waited for the bag to turn up probably fare better.

Q40 Mr. David Clelland: The dissatisfaction rate is rising, is it?

Mr Evans: Yes.

Q41 Mr. David Clelland: What has been done to try and address that problem?

Mr Evans: It has been perennial, something that we have spoken to airlines many times about over the years. We were indeed amongst those who had been arguing for a long time for a replacement of the previous Warsaw Convention, which had even lower limits for baggage, so we have had progress since 2001. It is something that the AUC is working on at the moment. We are in discussion with airlines, the thesis being that they have very good mechanisms in place for tracing missing bags. They know their procedures for what they will do to reimburse you or to provide you with assistance whilst you wait, but we do not think they are doing enough to stop bags going missing in the first place.

Q42 Mr. David Clelland: So far as the procedures for dealing with lost and mishandled baggage by airlines and the airport procedures, you feel these are not yet adequate?

Mr Evans: Dealing with mishandled is probably okay. It is before they become mishandled where there is the problem. We think they should be looking more at whether they can prevent bags being mishandled. My view is that people working in the baggage tracing and dealing with the complaints have become slightly inured to the human element of what happens when a bag goes missing. They are dealing with these things all the time. We are doing some work at the moment which will be published fairly soon, trying to use what information is publicly available on statistics - and there is not enough, which plays into another area of work we have been looking at for a long time, which is performance indicators, which we think the European Commission should produce. Based solely on figures produced by the Association of European Airlines, which has only 24 members, they are mishandling over five million bags a year. If you attempt to extrapolate that in terms of the numbers of airlines worldwide, it seems to us there is a problem and the industry ought to be thinking about doing more about it.

Q43 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think there are enough baggage handlers? Are they properly trained?

Mr Evans: That could be part of the problem. We have not gone into that much detail with them. That is the challenge to the airlines, to consider whether their contracts are too tough with the handlers and the contractors who take the business cannot provide the level of service that their customers deserve.

Ms Tietjen: There may also be some technology that could be used too at the front end to stop the problem occurring down the line.


Q70 Mr. David Clelland: Have you had an increased number of complaints from British Airways passengers about the change in their baggage policy?

Mr Evans: It is probably too soon to know about that.

Q71 Chairman: That comes in in the autumn?

Mr Evans: They postponed it, yes.


Q156 Mr. David Clelland: What is the current state of the relationship between the Transport and General Workers' Union and airlines and airports?

Mr Richardson: I think it is effectively indicative of where the industry has been and where it is going. It used to be highly regulated, mainly state-subsidised and effectively a costly or a more luxury good; it is now becoming deregulated, profit-orientated and a very common commodity, and you can see that that puts tremendous pressures on our members, partly because there are not enormous productivity gains to be had at airports, it is a very manual and labour intensive operation, and partly because you cannot move airports in the same way you can move other industries, for example take Heathrow and ship it somehow else where labour is cheaper thereby increasing profit, that is just not particularly viable, so therefore there becomes a real tension around squeezing the workforces as intensively as possible as well as squeezing their terms and conditions as intensively as possible. The new model for aviation in terms of low-cost airlines is based on a very simple product, it is price competitive, with no complexity in the network, and utilising your aircraft as much as possible, so turning your aircraft around as much as possible and as quickly as possible so you can get three or four what we call sectors (that is where you take off and land in a day) as opposed to two or three. You can imagine the pressure on the ground. You will see that in all sorts of symptoms, whether it be the increase in injuries that we have seen over the past years, changes in luggage policy whereby they do not want to put luggage in the hold, they want people to take luggage on board, get them on off the aircraft, turn it around and get some new people on and fly to another destination as soon as possible. So we really do see enormous pressures and that inevitably has led to some conflicts where our members quite rightly have said, "Enough is enough and these are not the kind of conditions that we want to work in."

Q157 Mr. David Clelland: If that means that the relationships are strained how does that impact on passengers?

Mr Richardson: I think passengers are also facing the brunt of changes in aviation because there is a desire to reduce staffing levels. Self-service check-in, on-line check-in, bag drops; all these elements are removing staffing levels at the front line, and particularly when things go wrong there simply are not the staff around that there used to be to deal with those kinds of problems, and what we call below wing, when you are loading and unloading aircraft, you are having pressure on the numbers of people on that and problems with baggage, as we saw with the fog over the Christmas period, which has now become a significant issue because again they want to get those aircraft up and moving, they do not want to repatriate baggage, they do not want to look around for baggage, they do not want to do things like that, and that produces a very strained relationship and it inevitably produces significant points of discontent and upset. We saw that too last year on 10 August with the change in security regulations and what happened to the operation there as well as obviously during the fog at Christmas, and these become real points of consternation for passengers. Inevitably, there just are not the people to turn to to solve it, and again airlines are reducing their direct employees, so there are fewer and fewer people who actually work for the airline you bought the ticket from who are there to help you out.

Q158 Mr. David Clelland: What does this lead to in terms of passengers' perception of baggage handlers for instance?

Mr Richardson: I am sure at the best of times they never had a good perception of baggage handlers but I think it does lead to increasing frustration. Where there were very straightforward processes for changing flights, for claiming your baggage, what you claimed on your baggage, that seems, from the way we are perceiving it, to be being lost, and it inevitably becomes cheaper now for airlines not to look for baggage but just simply to compensate, and part of that has been probably an unforeseen consequence of the standardisation of compensation packages across the EU that you simply write the cheque rather than find the luggage.

Q159 Mr. David Clelland: Are baggage handlers poorly paid?

Mr Sealey: Yes, their wages are low.

Q160 Mr. David Clelland: Airports are booming, are they not?

Mr Sealey: Yes but we have seen this in other areas of transport, and what we have said to this Committee in different things is that whether it be the airports or the airlines they are outsourcing those services that they see as non-core and then putting them to the market and letting the market push them down to the lowest possible level and then the contractor picks that up. They are under pressure to meet turn around times, which are very difficult, and it hits them, especially at peaks - holiday times, that sort of thing - where more people are going through and then the system becomes overloaded and that is when we get disputes. People say it is baggage handlers or the check-in staff going on strike at a time when they know it is going to be busy, that is also when the pressure is on them the most because they are understaffed and customers are under pressure. Flying is still a stressful experience for a lot of people, whether it is because they are cut off from their cigarettes or their drinking or whatever, and all the evidence about air rage and that sort of thing is because people are under pressure from flying in itself. So you have got the pressure of flying and then all those other pressures coming together and that is why we have the flash points.

Q161 Mr. David Clelland: Other people's experience is probably rather like mine; the flying bit is the easy bit, the stressful bit is the airport. Do you think that the proposed change in BA's baggage policy will cause any difficulties for your members?

Mr Richardson: Yes, I think it was wrapped up with difficulties for our members caused by the move to terminal five, where I think there were very real pressures in terms of whether BA would continue to handle on the ground in terminal five. At Heathrow there are possibly only four carriers - American Airlines, United Airlines, Air Canada and BA - who directly handle. Some carriers have wholly-owned ground handlers and the rest have separate ground handlers, so I think there was a real pressure in relation to the move to terminal five and whether the industrial group of ground handlers would still be there or whether there would be some sort of contracting. Inevitably BA went out and carried out an exercise in benchmarking and that has put the squeeze on the numbers who are able to operate in terminal five and turn round an aircraft. That kind of approach has put pressure on our members and they certainly will feel that when it comes to these pinch points. In a normal operation you usually you have less problems, but the problem with aviation is that these days it is not the seamless industry it used to be, it is a very complex industry with a lot of inter-linkages, and once you break one of those it disrupts the entire system, and that is where you begin to have significant problems where we simply do not have the ability to remedy it because there are simply not the staff around.

Mr Sealey: Airline companies are not the only think that you have got to take into account when you are taking in the baggage handling policy. You can also look at the role of the CAA as the regulator. It licenses the number of operators in an airport. Last year we were having and we still are having difficulties at Gatwick over the CAA wanting to increase the number of operators in Gatwick, and yet there are major problems with congestion and safety issues at the existing number of operators, but the CAA want to open it up, saying that the market is not liberalised yet. Five years ago they were the ones who set the cap on the number of operators in Gatwick because it was seen to be congested and unsafe, and since then the actual number of passengers and the number of flights going in at Gatwick have increased and yet the CAA are saying we can open it up to more competition and more baggage handlers in there.

Chairman: I think they have solved that by building so many gates that it gives you the impression that you are actually walking to your destination!

Q162 Mr. David Clelland: Obviously there has been growth in employment in the sector over the last ten years. Has your membership kept pace with that?

Mr Sealey: Depending on which areas. In certain areas employment has gone down and is forecast to go down. BAA's forecast is that employment over the next 15 years will go down quite considerably within Gatwick and that is because of competitive pressure and technology replacing people.

Mr Richardson: Generally speaking, our membership has gone up and it has continued to increase. We have also increased in new airports such as Stansted as well as traditional areas such as Heathrow. Our membership has kept pace and it is a high union density industry, probably 60 to 70 per cent of the industry is unionised. Some of those are specialised unions such BALPA and Amicus, covering engineers, but it is has continued to be a fairly unionised industry.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

The full transcript is available at:

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