EC Moves To Reinforce Passenger Rights, Heeds Airline Resources

 - March 18, 2013, 2:35 PM
The European Commission claims its most recent passenger rights proposal strikes a balance aimed at preserving airline viability. (Photo: London Gatwick Airport)

The European Commission proposed yet another package of measures to strengthen passenger rights last week, but not without a nod to airline concerns over the resulting costs. The commission designed the new rules to make passenger life easier when things go wrong, without putting airlines out of business by demanding too much care or compensation.

“[A passenger] will have a right to information about what is going on after half an hour [in the event of a flight delay],” said EC commissioner for transport Siim Kallas.

The proposal would require airlines to supply travelers with something to eat and drink after two hours instead of the currently prescribed four. If he or she has already boarded the airplane, the passenger may request disembarkation after five hours.

The new rules would also better enforce existing passenger rights. A survey conduced in Denmark showed that only 4 percent of passengers actually received the financial compensation to which they were entitled.

Further provisions include a requirement that airlines provide clear complaint procedures and formally reply to passengers within two months. Meanwhile, national authorities would have to better coordinate their penalty policies and the EC could order investigations.

Other measures give passengers the right to correct a misspelled name up to 48 hours before departure. Moreover, the proposal establishes that airlines may not deny a passenger the right to board the return flight of a round-trip booking on the grounds that he or she did not use the outbound ticket. “If your carrier is not able to re-route you themselves within 12 hours, they must find another airline or put you on the train,” Kallas added.

In return, the new rules would give carriers more time to solve operational problems. For an intra-EU flight, the allowance would amount to five hours instead of three. “The aim is to give the air carriers a reasonable time to solve the problem and encourage them to operate the flight, not just cancel it,” Kallas explained.

Finally, drawing on the 2010 ash-cloud experience, the proposal better defines “extraordinary circumstances.” For example, natural disasters or strikes by air traffic controllers do qualify. In such circumstances, the airline will have to provide accommodation for no more than three nights (except for certain passenger categories, such as the disabled).

At a recent EC briefing, officials said they consider the citizen-passenger the “starting point” for all their legislation efforts, while acknowledging the existing system has proved financially onerous for the airlines.

The Association of European Airlines called the new proposal “a step in the right direction,” but it stopped short of a full endorsement.

“We acknowledge the efforts of the European Commission to review the regulation, but we have also voiced our concerns about proposals, such as the fact that technical problems are not considered as extraordinary circumstances, as well as the potential costs and the administrative and operational burden on the industry,” said AEA acting secretary general Athar Husain Khan.