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Airlines have been warned they could face fines if they do not tackle “harmful practices” fuelling chaos at UK airports, including selling more tickets than they can supply and not warning passengers about the risk of cancellations.

In an open letter, the aviation and competition watchdogs told carriers they could be penalised if they are shown to be contributing to the misery of passengers hit by this summer’s widespread airport disruption.

The warning from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) follows weeks of last-minute cancellations and chaos at UK airports, with factors including Covid-related staff shortages, strikes and the war in Ukraine all adding to mounting anxiety that this summer’s getaways could now be under threat.

The CAA and CMA told airlines they must fulfil their legal obligation to minimise the pain for customers or else face “enforcement action”, which could include fines.

“We are concerned that some airlines may not be doing everything they could to avoid engaging in one or more harmful practices,” the two regulators wrote.

They said they were examining evidence of practices including: “Selling more tickets for flights than they can reasonably expect to supply and failing to warn consumers about the ensuing risk of cancellation.”

Some airlines may not be offering alternative flights, including with rival airlines, in the event of a cancellation, they said.

The CAA and CMA are also looking into whether airlines are giving passengers clear and upfront information about their rights when a flight is cancelled and giving them enough support and care during disruption.

“If we receive evidence that consumers continue to experience these serious problems, the CAA, supported by the CMA, will consider further action, including enforcement,” they said.

Danni Hewson, a financial analyst at stockbroker AJ Bell, said: “The airline sector hasn’t done a great job of navigating its post-Covid return.

“It wanted to take advantage of the surge in demand from consumers desperate for a foreign break – a bit of sun or a chance to reconnect with friends and family. But it has just not been able to deliver the kind of schedules required in time for those big holiday moments. Airlines have struggled with recruitment and in biting off more than they could chew, which has left consumers with a great big headache.

“Images of queuing families, social media posts full of horror stories of people left stranded or getting cancellation emails on their way to the airport just hours before they were due to depart have left a bitter taste.”

Airlines could be fined over ‘harmful practices’ fuelling UK airport chaos

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