With more than 25 years of professional experience in the Legal area, specializing in Aeronautical Law, Mar Dorao is Head of the User Support Service, from which SENASA handles air transport passenger claims for the aeronautical authority. Her career throughout different law firms, her direct participation in the courts, as well as her exhaustive knowledge of national, community and international regulations, have provided Mar with extensive experience in claims processes in the aeronautical sector.
Mar Dorao explains to us how this specific attention service began to work more than 15 years ago to give support to air transport passengers’ complaints and how an entire process runs behind the telephone lines and screens to be able to respond to situations that for many passengers can be critical.
How the User Support Service works and how it started to operate?
The User Support Service (SAU, for its acronym in Spanish), initially known as SIRU (for Inspection and User Relations Service in Spanish), is a service whose purpose is to advise and inform air transport users about their rights, as well as the claim’s process related to denied boarding, class change, cancellation or long delay of flights, also claims regarding compliance with the regulations on the rights of persons with disabilities or reduced mobility in air transport.
This service is carried out within the framework of the support activities provided by SENASA to the Spanish Aviation Safety Agency (AESA).
The SAU was created in 2005 as a result of the coming into force of the European regulation 261/2004 about the rights of passengers by which the Spanish Aviation Safety Agency (AESA) -at that time the General Directorate of Civil Aviation (DGAC)- needed to process all passenger claims. From SENASA, the SAU was launched to respond to this new situation and thus meet the need for service from the authority.
The first thing that is done from the SAU is to advise passengers on their rights in the event of incidents in air transport such as loss or delay of luggage, and the procedures that must be followed to claim the airline companies.
Likewise, information is provided on the obligations of airlines related to compensation, reimbursement and assistance to air passengers in the event of the incident in question, which may be: boarding denials, flight cancellations, flight delays and flight changes. class and the possibility of submitting a claim to AESA to demand compliance with their rights.
The user can contact by phone and email for advice. And to start a claim process, the form is available on the AESA website as well as the electronic record. Through a computer application, the procedure is managed directly at the SAU.
The service is currently attended by 35 people, half of whom is in charge of advising the passenger, both by telephone and in writing, and processing the claim filed with AESA. The other half of the team is dedicated to the technical part, which analyzes passenger complaints along with the proofs and reports that have been requested from the airlines or airport managers, in order to respond to the passenger by strictly applying the regulations applicable and the criteria of the aeronautical authority.
How has the role of the SAU evolved over the years?
Since 2005, when we started, the situation has changed a lot. At first there was an absolute ignorance of the rights of passengers in the sector, and it still exists in part, although it has improved a lot. This lack of knowledge came from both the passengers and the airlines themselves. The European regulation 261/2004, which regulates assistance to air passengers in these cases, seems simple, but gives rise to thousands of interpretations. Each country interprets it in a different way and that generates some confusion. During all these years a lot of work has been done, especially from AESA, to ensure that airlines are aware of the regulations, adapt their customer service system and apply it correctly. They now have much higher compliance rates than they did before. In fact, many of the companies in the sector have changed the orientation of their own business, in the sense of putting the passenger at the center; customer satisfaction comes first, it is the basis of your business. Before the pandemic started, some airlines were already focused on the passenger, but now there is a much deeper commitment on the part of the airlines and also, of course, there is a greater knowledge of their rights on the part of the passengers themselves who demand this compliance.
From the SAU we also handle complaints from passengers with disabilities or reduced mobility in air transport. There is a specific European regulation with this regard and AESA is responsible for the supervision and application of this in Spain. In these cases, there are few complaints, but of course they are treated the same as any other. Airlines and airport authorities have worked hard to eliminate barriers and so that people with disabilities or reduced mobility can use air transport in the same conditions and complete safety as other passengers, guaranteeing that they receive the assistance they need.
As for advice, when users contact the service, they are very grateful that a person attends to them, not a robot, not knowing who they are talking to, where everything is predetermined and there is no response to what is being requested. It is very frustrating not to find answers. One of the keys to customer service is empathy and a lot of calm to handle the situation. The humanization of the service is very important. The simple fact that a person is having a conversation with you, is listening to you, is already important. Customer service carried out by people, who have a conversation with the user, is essential, especially for passengers who, when they call, are at a critical moment. The fact that the user is cared for by a person who shows empathy about their situation has been one of the most relevant aspects of user service during the pandemic.
What did the toughest time of the COVID-19 pandemic mean for the SAU?
During the months of the pandemic in 2020, with massive flight cancellations, we had to manage an enormous number of claims, around 57,000, with a very large increase of advice’s requests. As an example, in a single day 12,000 claims were received. The SAU responded with great effort. Passengers found themselves in situations in which no one attended to them or gave them information because there were no staff in the passenger services at the airports or the travel agencies were closed, and the airlines customer services were collapsed. The SAU team responded in an exceptional way, offering a very professional service to the limit.
What have been the most important milestones in the SAU?
At the beginning of its operation, in July 2006, the SAU faced its first “emergency” with the invasion of the runways of El Prat airport in Barcelona. That caused flight cancellations and a total collapse of the airport. We had to deal with a lot of passenger complaints. However, the worst was the cessation of operations of an airline dedicated to tourism, in mid-December 2006, just before Christmas. A call center was organized to manage the relocation of passengers on flights chartered by the Ministry of Public Works. In addition, SENASA deployed teams at the airports in Madrid and Barcelona and a large deployment of resources was set up at IFEMA to attend to passengers and handle their claims. That resources included personnel from areas other than the SAU who joined in to help. That situation caught us all off guard and inexperienced in this type of incidents. It was a chaotic situation, with nervous people queuing in long lines, a very tense scene. It was a very hard scenario, with very borderline situations, but we all worked together, very well coordinated and we learned a lot.
Later in 2009, we faced a similar situation with the bankruptcy of another airline operator, but we already had more experience there. It also happened at Christmas, at a time with many scheduled holidays trips. From then on, every time we encountered a situation like this, the department had to reorganize itself to respond to the volume of complaints received. We have learned to adapt to each situation that we have had to face. And so we have gained experience to be able to deal with other equally complicated circumstances, such as the air traffic control crisis in 2010 with the closure of European airspace; the one caused by the eruption of the volcano in Iceland also in 2010, which affected many countries; the bankruptcies of various airlines, several pilot strikes in 2018, Brexit at the beginning of 2020 or the recent eruption of the volcano in La Palma in 2021.
How is the current situation of the SAU and what are the challenges for user service?
We are now witnessing some recovery in the airline industry in general. Despite not having air traffic throughout the pandemic year, the SAU didn’t stop responding to many incidents, which meant a large volume of work. We are now picking up the normal pace, we receive claims which no longer have anything to do with the pandemic. Little by little, the workload returns to a proportional reflection of the current activity of the sector and of the flights.
We have very interesting challenges ahead of us. One of them is finally taking shape and when it comes into operation it will mean quite a change. It consists of an alternative dispute resolution system that would replace the current way of processing claims. Currently, the reports we issue are not binding, but are similar in nature to mediation between the passenger and the airline. As it is not binding, the company can finally decide not to comply with AESA's decision, and the conflict usually ends in a lawsuit by the passenger.
In Europe, an ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) system has been defined as an alternative way to litigation resolution through the courts. The decisions of that ADR then will be binding for the airlines. The passenger, voluntarily, may choose to adhere or not to the ADR. If the user adheres to the ADR, the company is obliged to this system and the resolution will be binding and enforceable. In this way, the passenger will not have to wait, nor go through a judicial process.
With a view to the future implementation of the ADR system, SENASA is prepared to respond to this new situation, with a team made up of great professionals with extensive experience and wide knowledge in the field of passenger rights.
What is the situation in Spain in terms of claims management compared to the rest of Europe?
Spain is one of the countries in Europe with the most passenger complaints precisely because tourism is a key sector of our economy. In the distribution of claims between Member States, AESA is responsible for processing claims related to European Regulation 261 for flights departing from airports in Spanish territory, as well as those flights departing from a third country (non-EU) destined to any airport located in Spanish territory, operated by a community airline.
As one of its strategic objectives, AESA is aimed to improve the protection of passenger rights, so that in recent years it has focused a lot on this area, playing a very active and significant role with respect to other European countries. SENASA has professionals with extensive experience in the field of passenger rights. Our specialization and knowledge of the aeronautical sector contributes with an added value to provide a quality service to the aeronautical authority.