Airlines say ready to avoid repeat of summer travel chaos

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Airlines said on Sunday they are ready to avoid a repeat of last year’s travel chaos, but warned that some flights could still be disrupted by controller strikes and hit out at schemes that force them to pay compensation for unavoidable delays.

“I am reasonably confident that we’ll be able to get through this peak summer without too much disruption,” Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, (IATA) said in an interview on Sunday.

Airline leaders attending IATA’s annual meeting in Istanbul this week remain concerned about air traffic control disruption in Europe and the United States, however.

“But as far as they are concerned, they have fulfilled their obligation to get their resources in place for this summer. Most of the airports I think, will be okay, as well; I think they’ve learned the lessons from last year,” Walsh told Reuters.

A faster-than-expected rebound in air travel coupled with labour shortages caused chaos at several airports in Europe and North America last summer and prompted a row between airlines and airports over passenger caps designed to ease the pressure.

Rising numbers of disputes between travellers and airlines globally have led to calls for passenger compensation.

Legislation is under review in Canada, while the U.S. government is writing new rules and the European Union is pushing for stronger enforcement of its existing “Regulation 261” which requires compensation for delays of more than three hours.

“Ultimately it is the consumer who’s paying because this is of course being borne by the industry, but the industry can’t just absorb that,” Walsh said.

“The more expense that airlines have to incur because of problems outside of their control, the more that’s going to be reflected in ticket prices, and it will drive ticket prices up. It is a very, very frustrating environment to be operating in”.

Some passenger groups have accused airlines of skirting compensation by invoking an exemption for exceptional circumstances. EU rules allow such exemptions as long as airlines can show they have taken reasonable steps to prevent any delay.

Airlines have reported strong bookings for this summer as air traffic returns towards pre-COVID levels.

European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol warned late last year that 2023 could be “the most challenging year of the last decade” due to the Ukraine conflict, possible strikes, rising numbers of aircraft and the reopening of Asian markets.

(Reporting by Tim Hepher, Joanna Plucinska and Aditi Shah; Editing by David Holmes)