Transport minister Theresa Villiers has stated publically for the first time that the government is considering bringing scheduled airlines into the Atol consumer protection scheme.

Speaking at a Tui parliamentary reception on Tuesday night, she said the move would be considered as part of next year’s Airport Economic Regulation Bill.

She said: “The government is giving serious consideration to whether wider reform is needed. We have secured a legislative slot coming up in the next session, between spring 2012 and spring 2013, for the airport economic regulation bill (to be introduced to parliament).”

Abta head of public affairs Luke Pollard said Villiers’ comments were a step forward for the industry. He told Travel Weekly: “This is the first time the government has said it is actively thinking about bringing airlines into Atol.

“By saying that in a public forum, they are inviting the industry to make a case for bringing the airlines in. Now we will see if action follows words and it is announced alongside the draft regulations.”

Pollard said the industry would still have to “fight every step of the way” to bring airlines into the scheme. “We have to make the case for it and protecting the consumer is key to that.”

Villiers’ comment reflects a change of tack from the previous government, which rejected the idea of including airlines in Atol. Pollard said: “The previous goverment was hostile to the idea – the change is down to lobbying and all the problems in the last year that have shown up the issues in the sector.”

The Department for Transport is expected to launch a consultation document on Atol reform in June. Villiers announced plans in February for a ‘flight-plus’ Atol to extend consumer protection to dynamically packaged holidays sold online and by high-street agents.

Abta and member companies Thomas Cook and Tui Travel have criticised these as “flawed” because airlines were excluded but including airlines would require more time consuming primary legislation and there remained hope the government would act in the future.

The proposed incomplete reforms will leave an area of potential confusion for consumers and commercial disadvantage for some travel firms, as seat-only sales through third parties will be Atol-protected but seat-only sales made direct with carriers will not.