Twelve countries demand passenger rights suspension

The covered turbine of a parked Swiss Air plane at the airport in Zurich, Switzerland, 17 April 2020. [Photo: EPA-EFE/ENNIO LEANZA]

Updated after meeting of transport ministers

Twelve countries have asked the European Commission to suspend the law requiring airlines to offer passengers a full refund for cancelled flights, championing the idea of time-limited vouchers as an alternative.

Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland and Portugal co-signed a letter on Wednesday (29 April) urging the EU executive to make yet another virus-induced change to its rules.

“When the wording of the regulation was conceived, the current global crisis and its impact on air travel could not have been foreseen,” the letter reads, adding that the Commission should first issue new guidelines and then a proposal for an amendment.

The 12 countries say that airlines should be allowed to offer passengers coupons for later use instead of a cash refund, which is currently precluded by the current rights codex. The law says that passengers should be reimbursed within seven days.

But carriers like Air France, KLM and Ryanair have told passengers that they will have to wait at least several months for a refund, while others have flat out ignored the refund option and simply issued a voucher.

Air France-KLM gets virus bailout, green conditions still pending

Air France-KLM will get a state-backed bailout of around €10 billion in loans and guarantees. But the lack of strict conditions in the aid packages announced by the French and Dutch governments on Friday (24 April) has already stoked criticism.

The letter says that the waiver would work if EU-wide measures are implemented, including “non-discrimination, a common length of voucher validity, maximum flexibility of use and a clear right of reimbursement immediately at the end of validity.”

It also insists that the proposal “will not only protect airlines and consumers in these difficult times but it will also stimulate market recovery through flexibility of travel and enhancement of consumer trust in the long-term.”

Transport ministers met virtually on Wednesday afternoon, where plans to resume air travel once lockdown measures are lifted was top of the agenda. The passenger rights issue also reportedly featured on the agenda.

According to EU diplomats, the number of countries in favour of more voucher leeway swelled to as many as 20 countries, including Germany and Spain. The development means that if a proposal were to be drafted, there would be sufficient support in Council to pass it.

Turbulence ahead

The Commission made a temporary change to EU law in March, when the institutions waived problematic airport slot rules. Airlines were being forced to keep empty planes in the air to stick to their legal requirements but the legislation was quickly amended.

But a quick and easy solution is not on the cards this time around, as EU transport chief Adina Vălean has reiterated on several occasions that there should be no backslide on the rights rules and that there is no support in the European Parliament for the change.

Vălean has encouraged travel firms to make vouchers as attractive as possible to consumers, a point reiterated by Commission colleague Věra Jourová earlier today.

EU transport chief cautions against green strings for airline bailouts

European Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean told EURACTIV in an interview that the coronavirus outbreak means it is the wrong time to condition state aid for airlines on green measures, but warned the industry to stick to its passenger rights obligations.

MEPs would have to sign off on any amendment and notable figures, including transport committee chair Karima Delli, are against the idea. The French lawmaker has said that “passengers cannot be double victims of the pandemic”.

At the last plenary meeting, MEPs voted remotely in favour of urging the Commission to make sure member states enforce the rules. The Dutch government has told its regulator to waive the requirement.

European consumer organisation BEUC chief Monique Goyens said in a statement that “we’ve seen countless examples of airlines and travel companies undermining consumers’ rights by trying to push people to accept vouchers.”

“Consumers should not be forced by governments to pick up the bill to bail out the travel industry,” she added.

Airlines are currently in full cost-cutting mode. Several European airlines have applied for state aid and argue against mandatory social-distancing measures on board aircraft, which would affect their profit margins.

Europe’s airlines rebel against social-distancing jet set

Coronavirus social-distancing measures will not work on board aircraft, Europe’s airlines say, as the aviation industry and governments consider how to get planes back in the sky. But carriers elsewhere are willing to trial new ideas.

Most are struggling to deal with the complete collapse in demand for flights, which the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates is at its lowest period in nearly 15 years.

“Demand was at the same level it was in 2006 but we have the fleets and employees for double that. Worse, we know that the situation deteriorated even more in April and most signs point to a slow recovery,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.

The group also warned that the industry has not hit rock bottom yet and has urged governments and regulators across the world to make sure they have a common approach to resuming services, in order to avoid mass disruption previously seen in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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