EU moves to shore up passenger rights as virus plays havoc

The Commission has clarified the tenets of the EU's passenger rights charter. [Photo: Shutterstock]

The European Commission clarified on Wednesday (18 March) how the bloc’s passenger rights codex should work, in an attempt to alleviate the concerns of thousands of travellers and companies affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Airlines were left disappointed by the communication.

Flights have been cancelled en masse by airlines, while bus, ferry and rail operators have all also modified their timetables to comply with national measures like border closures and quarantines.

In many cases, this has left passengers stranded in foreign countries and unable to return home. Repatriation flights are underway and even a special cross-country train convoy was organised between the German and Lithuanian borders.

“In light of the mass cancellations and delays passengers and transport operators face due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commission wants to provide legal certainty on how to apply EU passenger rights,” transport chief Adina Vălean said in a statement.

The EU’s passenger rights charter is one of the most comprehensive – and complex – in the world and certain aspects of it were being tweaked by lawmakers before the coronavirus epidemic struck.

But airlines in particular have asked the Commission to water down the degree of responsibility imposed on transport operators by the rules, especially when it comes to “right to care” provisions.

The charter states that companies are responsible for providing food and refreshments to waiting passengers during a long delay and to provide accommodation – including transport to the place of stay – when appropriate.

In an open letter to transport ministers on Tuesday (17 March), industry group Airlines for Europe – which counts some of the bloc’s top carriers among its ranks – called for a limit of three nights paid accommodation and a €100 daily allowance.

The Commission had actually proposed criteria along those lines in 2013 but today’s guidance maintains the status quo and insists airlines must preserve right of care “even during a long period” and “extraordinary circumstances”.

That prompted an unamused response from A4E and fellow industry group IATA, which both condemned the lack of flexibility. In a statement they said: “This means that airlines are potentially responsible for unlimited care to passengers who have been stranded as a result of government decisions to close borders.”

Both groups said that “the new guidelines are disappointing and unhelpful, falling far short of the simple and temporary alleviation airlines had requested”.

In its open letter on Tuesday, A4E had insisted that “to be clear, we will look after passengers and staff as best we can under the circumstances but any measures that can help us to reduce the financial impact are much needed”.

UK carrier Flybe – already in severe financial trouble – folded earlier in the month, while the rest of the bloc’s airlines are also struggling to stay afloat after cutting back services, sometimes slashing capacity by 90%. Brussels and Austrian airlines are ceasing all operations this week.

European Parliament transport committee chief Karima Delli said in a statement that “passengers cannot be double victims of the coronavirus pandemic” and that transport companies must “strictly comply with the EU passenger rights rules”.

The French MEP added that countries must “provide exceptional measures to support the most vulnerable people, companies must apply the regulations perfectly and citizens should limit as much as they can their journeys”.

Another round of trilateral talks on updating rail passenger rights was scheduled for today but the negotiations were cancelled because of the ongoing situation. Tweaks to air rules are still on the Council’s to-do list.

Compensating, but how much?

But airlines did secure confirmation from the EU executive that the coronavirus does indeed constitute “extraordinary circumstances”, which will have a direct effect on whether passengers are entitled to compensation for the disruption.

The rules state that carriers are not eligible for such payments when cancellations are made more than 14 days ahead of the departure date or if the cause is an extraordinary circumstance.

“Wide-ranging cancellations are unavoidable and manifestly caused by circumstances beyond airlines’ control,” A4E’s Tuesday letter reads.

In its guidelines, the Commission says that measures like outright government bans on flights or curbs on free movement that de facto preclude air travel should be considered “extraordinary”. It also says that decisions will have to be made on a case-by-case basis.

“Where the airline decides to cancel a flight and shows that this decision was justified on grounds of protecting the health of the crew, such cancellation should also be considered as “caused” by extraordinary circumstances,” the clarification adds.

Passengers will still be entitled to a refund of their ticket price or an alternative route, depending on the conditions of sale they agreed to, despite the situation being labelled as an extraordinary one.

“In case of cancellations, the transport provider must reimburse or re-route the passengers. If passengers themselves decide to cancel their journeys, reimbursement of the ticket depends on its type and companies may offer vouchers for subsequent use,” Commissioner Vălean said.

Airlines had hoped that they would be able to choose themselves to offer vouchers in lieu of a cash refund but that option was rejected by the Commission.

“The Commission appears to considerably underestimate the crisis afflicting airlines in Europe. Faced with a cashflow catastrophe, many airlines can only offer vouchers in lieu of immediate cash refunds for cancelled flights,” said IATA’s Rafael Schvartzman.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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