Which? is warning that government plans to reform compensation rules for flights in the UK could slash average pay-outs by £163 per passenger and weaken a vital deterrent against delays and cancellations.
Currently, under EU261 rules, someone on a domestic flight in the UK can claim £220 once their flight has been delayed by three hours.
The government is considering scrapping this and offering compensation based on ticket price and the length of delay instead – similar to the delay repay system in rail.
A department for transport consultation ends on Sunday.
Which? estimates that the system proposed by the government could save airlines tens of thousands for a single flight, while compensation would plummet to just over a quarter of the current amount as the average sum eligible to each passenger dropped from £220 to just £57.
Which? looked at figures provided by Skyscanner to calculate how much airlines would have to pay out for long delays on some of the most popular UK routes under the possible new system, assuming planes have a full capacity of 180 passengers and everyone eligible was to be compensated.
Edinburgh to London, average economy ticket price £44.
If it were full, an airline would potentially have to pay out up to £39,600 for delays of three hours or more.
Under the proposed scheme, the maximum pay-out is reduced to just £7,920.
Gatwick to Belfast, average price £55.
If it were full, an airline could have to pay out up to £39,600 for delays of three hours or more.
Under the proposed scheme the maximum pay-out falls to just £9,900.
The consumer champion is hugely concerned that reducing compensation payments would remove a significant deterrent against airlines consistently letting passengers down with delays and cancellations.
Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said: “Ripping up current compensation rules for UK flights would be a huge blow for passenger rights and embolden airlines to act with impunity.
“Unfair practices such as overbooking and denied boarding could once again become more commonplace if this essential deterrent is removed, leaving passengers out of pocket.
“The government should reconsider these reforms and instead give passengers confidence that they will be protected when their journey is disrupted by giving the aviation regulator the powers it needs to crack down on airlines trying to flout the rules.”
While a lower level of compensation could become available to more people, Which? believes it would be wrong to switch to a system like that in operation for the rail industry.
Passengers can face missing out on a holiday, with ongoing travel and accommodation costs, if they are affected by severe delays or cancellations once they have reached the airport terminal, so in many cases it is potentially far more costly than missing a train.
The changes would also disproportionately affect people living in the devolved nations and regions of the UK, who are more likely to take domestic flights, whether to visit family, for business or as the first leg of a trip abroad.
Which? is also concerned that, if adopted, this plan may set a precedent that could weaken passenger compensation rights and incentives for airlines to avoid flight disruption for travel throughout Europe and further afield.
The consumer champion is calling on the government to reconsider its proposals on compensation and instead increase enforcement in a market which has seen persistent law-breaking by airlines over many years.
The government can restore consumer trust in the sector by reducing both delays and cancellations.