by Derek Mitchell, CEO of Citizens Advice Scotland
(This column first appeared in the Sunday Herald on 5 August 2018)
A few weeks ago I booked a flight from London to Edinburgh, but when I tried to catch it I was told it was delayed, then that it was cancelled and they couldn’t guarantee me a seat till the following night at 9pm at the earliest. I won’t say which budget airline I was using (you are free to have a guess) but the incident brought home to me the reality of how our ‘consumer economy’ works. Or rather, how it doesn’t.
In the same pool of aggrieved travellers with me were business people, holiday-makers, students and families with young children. All of us had plans, all of us had been sure to book in advance and all of us therefore expected the airline to take us from A to B as promised. Not an unreasonable expectation given we had already paid them for same.
Yet there was no advance warning of the cancellation and little enthusiasm from the company in helping us seek redress for the inconvenience they had caused us. Moreover, it has been four weeks now since I submitted my complaint and compensation claim and I haven’t had so much as an acknowledgement. Another passenger booked on the same flight tells me his claim has already been rejected.
Now it just so happens that I am head of the biggest consumer rights organisation in Scotland. I won’t say I knew instantly what my precise rights were on the day, but I knew where to find out (our website www.citizensadvice.org.uk/scotland) However, the experience has made me question how much of a consumer society we can truly be if people caught in sudden situations like this are not aware of their rights. And the evidence is that many are not.
So how do we, as a society, better prepare each other for situations where our consumer rights are not upheld? Whether it is a cancelled flight, or an unfair charge, some faulty goods or poor service in a restaurant or from an energy supplier? Building the confidence to exert your rights in these situations requires a base of knowledge about what it is to be a consumer. There is a continuing public education role here for agencies like Citizens Advice Scotland - one which we accept wholeheartedly.
However, the fight for decent standards of service should not be the consumers’ responsibility alone. Businesses and service providers need to understand that poor service is not acceptable and should never be shrugged off.