Proposed UK govt changes to ATOL scheme draw criticism

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A group of almost 90 airlines operating in the UK has criticised government attempts to reform consumer rights for leisure travellers.

The Board of Airline Representatives in the UK (BAR-UK) said that proposals to reform the Air Travel Organisers' Licensing scheme (ATOL) would add complexity and confusion to the system, yet potentially leave more consumers unprotected.

BAR-UK represents 86 scheduled carriers, which are based or operate in the UK, in their dealings with government and regulators.

The ATOL system has existed for 40 years and provides refunds or repatriation flights for consumers on flight-inclusive package holidays if their travel company collapses.

The government says the scheme needs to be reformed to take account of changes in the travel market. It says that many types of holiday now exist that resemble package holidays but fail to meet their legal definition, leaving travellers unprotected by the ATOL scheme.

The scheme has also operated at a deficit for some years, with the government acting as a final guarantor using taxpayers' funds; it wants to make ATOL self-supporting and withdraw its guarantee.

The consultation period on the government's proposals ends on 15 September.

"We've looked at what's proposed and we think it's a bit of a mess, quite frankly," said BAR-UK chief executive Mike Carrivick. "We think much more confusion is added to the system, rather than taken away."

Because of complexities in the new proposals, Carrivick believes people could end up paying the ATOL fee twice, via a series of providers, yet still not be protected if their travel operator becomes insolvent. "If you haven't commenced travel, you don't get anything back," he said.

The government proposals have created several new categories of what would be covered by the ATOL scheme, said Carrivick. For clarity, he said, package holidays should remain subject to ATOL rules and every other arrangement should be explicitly excluded. The public would then know exactly where they stood and, if not buying a package holiday, could decide whether to take out personal insurance to cover them in the event of the collapse of their travel provider.