EU set for air passenger rights tug of war

Barajas Airport

With 37 votes in favour, three against and some 600 amendments tabled, the European Parliament transport committee finally put forward a compromise text yesterday (17 December) aimed at strengthening an EU regulation on air passenger rights, a sensitive political issue ahead of next year's European elections.

The compromise text, drafted by Luxembourg MEP Georges Bach (European People's Party), seeks to “put the passenger at the centre of the legislation”, from ticket booking to final destination.

The report takes into account and integrates the existing jurisprudence on the matter and seeks to provide a more balanced approach to a legislation Bach said was “too favourable to the airline industry”.

Airlines back an overhaul of the existing Regulation after the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland caused days of chaos and massive losses for airlines in 2010.

Compensation and information

Most of all, MEPs want passengers to be well informed and taken care of by airlines.

Currently, only 2% of users are entitled to compensation and a vast majority are unaware of their rights, leading to “massive abuse by airlines,” Bach said.

From the moment the passenger checks in, there should be a contact point with a person responsible for providing all necessary information about the users’ rights in case of a problem, including complaint procedures and forms, according to Bach's report.

Furthermore, MEPs agreed that passengers who have not used their outbound flight should not be denied boarding on the return flight. Coats, handbags and at least one airport shopping bag should be allowed on all flights regardless of the maximum baggage allowance. And free food and drinks should be provided after two hours delay.

In case of insolvency of an air carrier, all passengers should be entitled to reimbursement even those who have not yet started their journey, according to the amended text.

The transport committee also rejected the European Commission’s thresholds on compensation for delays. MEPs propose €300 compensation for a three hours delay for an intra-EU flight of less than 2,500 km; €400 for five hours delay of flights between 2,500 and 6,000 km and €600 compensation from a seven hours delay on long-haul flights.

Extraordinary circumstances

One of the most contentious proposals was the definition of the “extraordinary circumstances” which allow an air carrier to deny passengers their compensation rights.

The parliamentarians put forward an exhaustive list in an Annex to the regulation, which includes strikes, sabotage and certain weather conditions. The European Commission will have the possibility to add new elements to the list if unexpected events occur.

The issue is expected to create tensions with the member states during the negotiations.

A Council progress report published in November after discussions among EU countries revealed that “delegations still have reservations on the text and continue to have difficulties on the inclusion of some cases in the Annex, and also on the fully binding nature of the Annex. They would prefer to give the possibility to National Enforcement Bodies and national courts to deviate from the list in exceptional, duly justified cases.”

Slim chances of agreement before the EU elections

Bach said that he hoped his report will be voted in the second plenary of February 2014, to put pressure on the Council, which is in no hurry to reach a final compromise before the European elections in May.

The dossier is seen as sensitive by member states which held an orientation debate on 10 October on the matter.

“Considering the complexity and the political importance of this file, and the fact that delegations have diverging views on the approach to take on some important issues, despite the shared overall interests it was not possible to reach that objective,” the Council said in a report dated 27 November.

However, the Parliament's transport committee hopes to reach an agreement in first reading before the next elections, which would then constitute the basis on which future MEPs will have to work, regardless of the composition of the next legislature.

Luxembourg MEP Georges Bach (European People's Party), the Parliamentary rapporteur on the dossier, said: “There are a lot of loopholes in the current regulation and this is why the European Court of Justice has adopted a sheer 39 rulings on this matter. Unlike the Commission and the Council, we want to take these rulings on board. This means we are in favour of keeping the compensation requirement for delays of more than three hours as opposed to five hours proposed by the Commission. Furthermore, we want to clarify and limit the definition of 'extraordinary circumstances'. They must no longer be a general excuse to avoid compensation.”

The Socialist and Democrats’ spokesperson on the dossier, Bernadette Vergnaud (France) said: “Our aim is to help passengers protect their rights and to offer them more transparency. Today's vote is a viable compromise between the interests of consumers and feasible regulations: until now airlines do not automatically recognise those rights and passengers must claim them individually. However most customers prefer not to go through all the hassle.”

Vilja Savisaar-Toomast, from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, said: “No more surprises when getting on the plane. No more possible air companies’ requests to throw away duty free purchases or to squeeze all belongings in one bag only. Passengers will have to learn one standard way to fly and no longer adjust to different and arbitrary restrictions imposed by a specific air carrier”.

The EU adopted in 2004 regulation 261/2004 that establishes compensation right for airline passengers who are denied boarding or whose flights have been delayed or cancelled.

Compensation depends on factors such as the length of delay and duration of the flight.

This “Air Passenger Rights” law took effect in 2005 and was due for review in 2012 by the European Commission.

Both airline and consumer groups are pressuring the EU executive for changes, with the industry arguing that more flexibility is needed while consumer groups say laws should also ensure passengers against delays or cancellations caused by airline bankruptcies.

EU regulations cover other areas as well, including the rights of passengers with disabilities, loss or damage to baggage, and full disclosure of airlines flying routes – to address the increasing practice of ‘code-share’ arrangements where passengers may book through one airline and actually fly on another.

The rules face their most severe test during inclement weather and, in April 2010, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption in Iceland that caused flight cancellations and travel disruptions for days in much of Europe. The airline industry is pushing for early clarification of where exceptions are allowed in extreme situations, including times of widespread inclement weather.

  • February 2014: Vote in plenary session of the European Parliament

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