Passengers with complaints about flight delays and cancellations may be able to take them to a new "aviation ombudsman" with binding powers from March next year, under plans confirmed by the regulator today.

It's hoped the move will see the UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) end its role as a complaints handler with aviation claims about flights departing and leaving the UK, instead going to a new industry led ombudsman-style scheme.

However the CAA will only stop investigating individual complaints if airlines that collectively carry at least 50% of passengers departing from or arriving in the UK join the new scheme. See our  Flight Delays guide for full details on claiming now.

The UK regulator first launched a consultation on the creation of this new scheme in February, something which MoneySavingExpert.com fed into this at the time (see the Airline ombudsman-style scheme set for launch next year MSE News story).

How do the CAA's plans work?

The key boon for passengers is that this new complaints scheme will have powers to force airlines to payout compensation. Currently the CAA and other European regulators, which is where passengers complain to when they've had no luck with the airline, can't make binding decisions.

But the CAA is relying on the industry to set a scheme up and it's also only voluntary for airlines to join. This means passengers can't complain to the scheme if their airline hasn't joined it.

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The CAA does however say it has already received "strong interest" from the industry and says airlines have already told it they're not prepared to support the costs of both an industry led scheme and the CAA's current complaint handling service.

It adds that if necessary, it's "prepared" to ask the UK Government to make having such a scheme compulsory under law.

The new scheme may also introduce a fee for consumers submitting complaints, but even if this does happen the CAA says it's likely to be no more than £25 and it will only be payable if the case goes against you.

What if not enough airlines sign up to a scheme?

The CAA it will still approve an ombudsman style scheme going ahead which has fewer airlines than those carrying 50% of passengers departing from or arriving in the UK signed up.

But the key difference is the CAA will only stop its complaints service when a scheme or more than one scheme is set up which covers airlines that collectively carry at least 50% of passengers departing from or arriving in the UK join the new scheme.

'Not right' that air passengers have to go to court

Iain Osborne, group director of regulatory policy at the CAA, says: "It can't be right that many air passengers have to go to court to get a concrete resolution to their complaint – especially when they can easily go to an independent ombudsman with an unresolved telecoms, energy or financial services problem.

"We are not prepared to let that situation continue and moving towards an ombudsman-style approach for aviation will make sure air passengers benefit from the quick, fair and certain approach to dispute resolution that has long been the norm in other major consumer markets."

So what happens next?

Now that the findings from the CAA's consultation have been published, here's what it expects to happen in the coming year:

  • 1 September 2015: The CAA expects to have a legal agreement in place committing airlines that collectively carry at least half of all passengers to or from UK airports to set up a complaints scheme.

  • September 2015-March 2016: The new complaints scheme will be set up, although it won't be ready for passengers to use. In the meantime all qualifying complaints will continue to be investigated on an individual basis by the CAA.

  • 1 March 2016 onwards: The new ombudsman scheme will be open for passengers with complaints about the airlines involved in the scheme to complain to. The CAA will no longer look into flight delay and compensation complaints on an individual basis – it's likely it will only use complaints data as intelligence to support its enforcement work.

Does anything change for now?

No. For now nothing changes – continue to submit any complaints about flight delays as normal. So first complain to the airline and if that doesn't work, take your claim to either the aviation regulator in the relevant country or the European Consumer Centre.

For full help on whether or not you're eligible, how to claim if you are, and free template letters, see our Flight Delays and Cancellations guide.

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