The European Parliament has called for stricter rules to make it easier for stranded air passengers to claim compensation from their airlines.
The lawmakers' vote on Wednesday (5 February)takes Europe closer to tightening rules on compensation, by limiting the exemptions airlines can use to avoid payouts for a flight delay or cancellation.
Under the proposed rules, a delay could trigger compensation of up to €600, depending on the length of time involved and flight distance.
The revised rules, which would apply across the 28 countries in the European Union, would require airlines to have staff to inform passengers about their rights, as well as laying out procedures for complaints and reimbursements.
"It's a David versus Goliath story, as only 2% of passengers actually get compensation after filing a complaint against an airline," said Georges Bach, the lawmaker responsible for steering the legislation through parliament.
Airlines that fail to reply to a complaint within two months would be deemed to have accepted the passenger's claims.
Airlines facing exceptional circumstances, such as political unrest, would be exempted from paying, but they would have to give passengers a full written explanation.
Airlines' obligation to provide accommodation would be limited in the event of long-running problems, such as the volcanic ash cloud in 2010.
A spokesman for consumer group Beuc said that more needed to be done to enforce existing rules. It welcomed the move to stop the practice of cancelling the return leg of a flight where the passenger failed to turn up for the outward flight.
Siim Kallas, the European Union commissioner for transport policy, said the new rules should ensure that "passenger rights do not just exist on paper".
Aviation analysts said the risk for passengers was that airlines would pass on the extra costs.
"The airline industry is highly competitive, and has thin margins, so these costs cannot be absorbed," James Stamp, head of aviation at KPMG, said in a statement.
The new law is likely to come into force next year, after negotiations with the EU countries are concluded.
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.
- European Parliament: Parliament pushes for enforceable air passenger rights (5 Feb. 2014)
- European Parliament: Draft report on revised air passenger rights
- European Commission: Current rules on air passengers rights
- Council of the European Union: Progress report (27 November 2013)