Parliament votes to boost airline travellers’ rights, privacy

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The European Parliament voted today (29 March) over the objections of the airline industry to strengthen rights of passengers who face flight cancellations or other travel interruptions.

The resolution, adopted two days after a parliamentary panel bowed to US pressure and approved a deal to store records of travellers’ personal data, also says passengers should have access to view the information and be informed when it is accessed.

British MEP Keith Taylor (Greens), who was responsible for the resolution, said he expects the EU executive to incorporate the recommendations in its revamp of the air passenger rights legislation. The vote to adopt the document was 509-20 with 53 abstentions.

The law – formally known as Regulation EC/261 – guarantees compensation for flight cancellations and delays that affect all EU carriers and flights originating in the Union.

“The fact that the Commission has been very helpful in this report suggests to me that their legal proposals will feature some of the Parliament’s proposals,” Taylor told EURACTIV after the vote.

The resolution also calls on the Commission to ensure that each airport has personnel on hand to assist stranded passenger, provides complain forms in all EU languages, and that airlines disclose the full costs of tickets in their advertising – including extra fees or baggage charges.

But the document dilutes an earlier draft that would provide compensation guarantees for passengers left stranded when airlines go bankrupt or are grounded by financial troubles.

The passenger rights regulation is one of the world’s most stringent and has long been heralded as a victory for consumers.

Airlines want flexibility

Leading industry groups have sought more flexibility in times of extreme weather and other emergencies that are beyond the fault of carriers.

Examples include the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland that caused days of chaos and massive losses for airlines in 2010. Political upheaval in North Africa last year disrupted flights to popular tourist destinations, and Japan’s devastating tsunami and resulting nuclear power disaster also caused air travel chaos a year ago.

“It basically writes a blank check when airlines can’t simply fly people to their destination,” Victoria Moores, spokeswoman for the Association of European Airlines (AEA), said of extreme circumstance when airplanes are grounded or diverted for safety reasons. “That is a very major concern”

The regulation is intended to compensate passengers when airlines overbook or cancel flights, allowing exceptions in “extraordinary circumstances” without defining what those are.

Moores said the industry is asking the Commission to be more specific as it reviews the law.

But in a defeat for the industry, a preliminary opinion by the European Court of Justice upheld compensation for passengers of Ryanair Holdings, the EU’s top discount carrier, stemming form the 2010 Iceland volcano. The opinion was issued by the court’s advocate general on 22 March.

Personal records

Parliament’s resolution also calls for giving travellers the right to know when their private details – or passenger name record – is accessed. The EU unsuccessfully opposed American demands to maintain records on travellers for up to 15 years as a counter-terrorism measure.

Privacy and rights activists say the requirement is excessive and runs counter to European privacy values. But bowing to US pressure, the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties on Tuesday gave a green light to the passenger records deal with the United States.

Another provision in the resolution calls for passengers to be repatriated when their planes are cancelled because of an airline’s financial woes, but falls short of Taylor’s original resolution that called for travel compensation guarantees as well as costs for a return flight home.

While bankruptcies are not a daily event in air travel, they can create bottlenecks and delays when passengers must find alternative travel.

Some 96 airline bankruptcies were reported from 2000 to 2010, according to Commission and industry studies, including widely publicised cases where airlines shut down with passengers waiting at the gates.

Among those were the collapse of Air Madrid in 2006 that left 100,000 people stranded and the demise of the Irish company EUJet that stranded 5,000 people.

SkyEurope, a popular low-cost airline based in Slovakia, collapsed at the height of the summer holiday season in 2009, leaving customers across Europe scrambling to find other flights.

The European Consumers Organisation BEUC said the EU is not doing enough to combat misleading advertising and a lack of transparency in airline ticket pricing.

"Unfortunately, practices such as credit card surcharging, bans on ticket transferability and unexpected fees for luggage are becoming unwelcome facts of life for travellers,” BEUC director general Monique Goyens said in a statement. “The EU has a duty to stamp out these dodgy business practices.”

The EU adopted in 2004 Regulation 261/2004 that establishes compensation right for airline passengers whose flights are delayed, cancelled or denied boarding. Compensation depends on factors such as the length of delay and duration of the flight.

This “Air Passenger Rights” law is under review. Both airline and consumer groups want changes, with the industry arguing that more flexibility is needed while consumer groups say laws should also insure 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 EU's passenger rights face their severest test during inclement weather and extreme events - such as the April 2010 the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption in Iceland that caused flight cancellations and travel disruptions for days in much of Europe. The airline industry has urged more flexibility caused by "acts of God."

  • 2012: Commission Review of the Regulation 261/2004 on Air Passenger Rights.

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