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CAA must tread carefully on proposed ATOL reforms to prevent smaller businesses going under

Proposed changes to ATOL being considered by the Civil Aviation Authority (‘CAA’) would need
to be phased in gradually to prevent having a potentially drastic impact on smaller, otherwise
healthy tour operators, according to a leading travel industry accountant.

Written on September 4, 2021 by Xeinadin

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Jonathan Wall, CEO of Elman Wall, which is part of Xeinadin, the Ireland and UK-based business
advisory and accountancy group, says there is merit in proposals to mandate the segregation of
customer monies to provide greater consumer protection. However, he is warning that without
an appropriate time period for Covid-ravaged travel businesses to recover and build a cash buffer
that would enable them to comply with mandatory segregation, a large number of well-managed,
healthy tour operators could risk going under due to the negative impact it would have on
cashflow.

The CAA has been consulting over recent months on its intention to introduce changes to ATOL.
The main changes relate to how ATOL holders fund their operations and how the use of their
customers’ monies should be considered within the regulatory regime.

Mr Wall, whose firm has acted for hundreds of travel businesses and currently acts as ATOL
Reporting Accountants to over 100 ATOL holders, believes that the CAA should be cautious
about making wholesale changes to a system that works well on the whole, on the back of a small
number of high-profile failures of businesses that bear no resemblance to most ATOL holders.

Between 2014 and 2019, 93% of customers affected by failures of travel businesses were due to Monarch and Thomas Cook - both companies that arguably should not have had ATOL licences renewed for some years prior to their failure. I would urge the CAA to be cautious about making too many substantive changes to a system that largely functions effectively, as a result of the mismanagement of two giants who bear no resemblance to most licence holders. In my view, if not handled very carefully it could have a hugely negative impact on many principled and well-run businesses.

Jonathan Wall, CEO of Elman Wall, part of Xeinadin group

In a submission to the CAA consultation, Mr Wall outlined a number of key arguments that
included:

Mandatory segregation of customer funds

ATOL holders should have a choice as to continue to protect consumers by way of bonding or
insurance-based models, rather than having to segregate funds. There should be an extended
transition period towards segregation of customers’ monies whilst the industry recovers from
the ravages of Covid, to avoid the potential mass failure of otherwise perfectly good tour
operators due to the inability to cope with the cash flow requirements of a new model. This
scenario would result in calls on the Air Travel Trust (ATT) and erode consumer confidence in
the packaged industry.

To be viable, the Trust model must align with supplier payment requirements, a significant
challenge.

Mr Wall, whose firm is authorised by the CAA to act as Trustees over clients’ money in
ATOL Air Travel Trust arrangements, explained:

If consumer funds are held in escrow or trust until a holiday has completed, but suppliers, who would typically be due 70-85% of the funds held, require payment in advance of commencement of travel, the numbers won’t stack up and tour operators will face an ever-increasing cash requirement to fund this gap as their businesses grow.”

Airlines and Tour Operators must be aligned

There needs to be alignment between the duties and obligations of tour operators and airlines
to their customers, both direct to the consumer and where a tour operator is an intermediary
between the airline and the consumer. Under current regulations, many tour operators have
been unable to refund consumers within 14 days as they are required to under the Package
Travel Regulations because monies paid to airlines (amongst other service providers in the
supply chain) by ATOL holders in advance of travel were not refunded by the airlines in the
same timeframe.

It is difficult to comprehend that there is consumer protection in place for the sale of holidays, but not for the direct sale of airline seats.”

Mr Wall added.

Inadequate training and standards for the ARA scheme

Mr Wall says it is far too easy for an accountancy firm to become an ATOL Reporting Accountant
(ARA) and standards must be raised. The scheme was supposed to ensure the quality of
financial information submitted to the CAA as part of annual accounts and ATOL Annual
Returns, but the existing training model is wholly inadequate, and there is no ongoing training
or quality control.

Xeinadin was formed in 2019 through the merger of over 100 small and medium-sized
accountancy firms, has annual revenues of over £100 million and over 1,500 team
members. Predominantly focused on SMEs and owner-managed businesses, it aims to continue
its development through acquisitions and organic growth, underpinned by its digital
transformation and group integration programmes.

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