New rights for airline passengers


The European Commission is to introduce a series of new rights for air travellers from 2015, ending some rip-offs in the process.

There has been a rare bit of good news for frequent flyers, after the European Commission proposed new rights for air passengers. These make it considerably easier for travellers to complain, get refunds and claim compensation when flights are delayed or cancelled.

No more 'cattle class' treatment
One complaint about modern air travel is that – particularly when flying with budget airlines, notably Ryanair – passengers get treated little better than cattle. However, this is set to change by 2015, thanks to changes set out by the European Commission.

Here is a summary of the major changes to come into force in 2015:

  • The delay period beyond which financial compensation applies is to be increased to five hours from the current minimum of three hours. This applies to any flight within the European Union and international flights shorter than 3,500 kilometres (2,175 miles)

  • For long-haul international flights, financial compensation kicks in after a delay of nine hours for flights up to 6,000km (3,730 miles) and after 12 hours for journeys beyond this distance.

  • Passengers facing delays of more than 12 hours must be rerouted via rival carriers if an airline cannot put them on another flight of its own. At present, airlines usually force passengers to be rerouted on one of their own flights or with their partners, which can cause delays lasting days.

  • If passengers have boarded and their plane is waiting on the tarmac for more than an hour, then they must be provided with water, air conditioning and toilet facilities. If this runway delay lasts more than five hours, then passengers have the right to disembark (leave the aircraft).

  • Airlines must inform passengers of delays and provide explanations within 30 minutes of the scheduled departure time.

  • Airlines may no longer levy admin charges for correcting misspelt names on tickets. Budget airlines routinely use this rip-off to boost their profits, with Ryanair charging up to £160 to correct tickets.

  • Airlines must allow musicians to bring smaller instruments into the cabin. For larger instruments, carriers must have clear terms and conditions for transportation inside the cargo hold.

  • For lengthy delays, airlines must pay for up to three nights of hotel accommodation for stranded passengers. However, this limit would not apply to pregnant women, unaccompanied children and those with restricted mobility.

  • Passengers may not be denied boarding on return flights simply because they did not use the outbound part of their return tickets.

The Commission argues that these rule changes are long overdue, as they provide more certainty both to passengers and airlines. EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said,:"It is very important that passenger rights do not just exist on paper. We all need to be able to rely on them when it matters most – when things go wrong."

The end of cheap flights?
Of course, as a concession to the airline industry, there are restrictions on these new rules. They apply only to European airlines and flights and will come into force only being approved by member states and the European Parliament.

Also, the European Commission has clarified when airlines can deny compensation due to 'exceptional circumstances'. While mechanical and technical failures within aircraft do not fall into this category, natural disasters (such as the Icelandic ash cloud of April 2010) and strikes by air-traffic controllers can be treated as exceptional circumstances.

The aim of these new regulations is to clarify passenger rights, improve the information and care they receive, allow effective rerouting of stranded passengers, and make clear their rights to claim financial recompense.

Obviously, all this extra effort will come at a price. Critics of the EC's proposals argue that, ultimately, passengers will pay for these new rights through higher fares. If so, then they could lead to the end of ultra-low-cost flights as pioneered by the likes of Ryanair and easyJet.

Will they work?
What's more, the proposed changes will do little to enforce the new rules. For example, in one survey in Denmark, fewer than one in 25 passengers (4%) entitled to financial compensation actually received it. In Germany, one in five complaint letters (20%) about flights went unanswered by airlines.

So without strict enforcement of the new regulations, airlines will continue to flout the rules by denying proper compensation to inconvenienced passengers. In effect, without properly enforcing these rules, airlines will be free to continue misleading and mistreating passengers, while avoiding their legal and financial obligations.

Indeed, consumer rights groups admit that getting compensation from carriers can be frustrating and difficult. Laura Fergusson, consumer adviser for the.UK European Consumer Centre, says: "National enforcement bodies work differently. Some mediate to reach an agreement and some give recommendations to airlines, but they are not binding. Quite often, airlines ignore these recommendations. Then consumers have to consider legal proceedings."

In short, strong passenger rights are practically useless without proper enforcement, leaving airlines off the hook and free to frustrate and ignore their customers' complaints. As a result, the UK European Consumer Centre wants rules requiring airlines to acknowledge complaints within seven days and reply formally within two months.

In short, while we can look forward to these new rights on paper, only by vigorously pursuing our rights will airlines respect our custom and stop treating us like cattle!

Learn more about your rights as an air passenger at the EU's Your Europe website.

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