European airlines flout passenger rights, report says | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 18.11.2010
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European airlines flout passenger rights, report says

A new report from Germany's consumer protection body says that European airlines are flouting EU regulations on ‘passenger rights.' This is unsurprising, considering the cut-throat price war in the air travel market.

View of Lufthansa plane taking off from airport window

Passengers are being denied their rights

It may be the first time that air-rage has manifested itself as a communal sit-in. A tense stand-off ensued Tuesday night when around 90 passengers returning from Morocco to Paris refused to disembark from a Ryanair flight that had landed three hours late – at Liege airport in Belgium.

There was a good explanation for the detour – fog had made a safe landing impossible at Beauvais airport north of Paris – but for over four hours passengers refused to travel the last 350 kilometers (225 miles) on the buses provided by Ryanair.

Reports said the crew reacted by turning off the lights, locking the toilets and leaving the aircraft, but Ryanair denied that version of events, whicle a spokesman for Liege airport described the atmosphere as "really tense" and referred to "a few acts of violence" by the passengers.

Whether this exceptionally angry protest was justified is open to question, but it marks a new low in relations between airlines and passengers. Coincidentally, it also comes in the same week that the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (VZBV) released a damning survey of German customer satisfaction in the airline industry.

Ryanair sign

Surprisingly, there were fewer complaints about budget airlines

The key conclusion of the survey was that the 'airline passenger rights' introduced by the European Union five years ago are often being ignored.

Flouting the new rules

The EU directive was designed to guarantee airline passengers compensation for cancelled or delayed flights, but many national governments have yet to devise the institutions that enforce these rules.

The VZBV's survey - comprising 1,122 questionnaires - found that 80 percent of people were only informed of flight delays at the airport. The report also said that only 25 percent were offered compensation or other services stipulated by the regulations, and then almost always only after having demanded it.

Over half of those surveyed also said that they were not made aware of their passenger rights before their journey – another one of the EU's stipulations.

According to VZBV lawyer Sabine Fischer-Volk, it wasn't just the budget airlines that failed to provide the service. "More or less all airlines have been ignoring the passengers' rights," she told Deutsche Welle. "We got the most complaints about Lufthansa, Condor, and Air Berlin – the high-end airlines."

The survey should not be taken as a ratings table for airlines themselves, since those questioned flew mainly with airlines that operate in Germany. But the VZBV say their data shows a significant flouting of the rules by the airline industry in general.

Good reasons

Apart from the problem of inadequate enforcement, Fischer-Volk pointed out the obvious economic reasons for the airline's policy. Unlike the compensation offered by German rail operator Deutsche Bahn, for example, the EU-stipulated compensation is not tied to the cost of the flight tickets, but by the distance of the journey, and it is always between 250 and 600 euros ($338 - $810) per passenger.

Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger

The justice minister is in the middle of setting up a new arbitration committee

"If you calculate that for a fully-booked airplane, that comes to roughly four times the cost of the flight," said Fischer-Volk. "And of course the airlines are going to do all they can to avoid paying that."

The compensation payments are the same for budget airlines and high-end airlines, but since the high-end airlines have been losing passengers to the budget airlines, they are under considerable pressure to protect their profit margins.

Arbitration committee in the works

The VZBV also reported that airlines often systematically deprived passengers of their rights by delaying letters, while fines imposed by German authorities like the Federal Agency of Aviation (LBA) were not intimidating enough. In an interview with financial daily Handelsblatt, the chairman of the Berlin branch of the VZBV, Juergen Kessler, said that by its nature the LBA "is closer to the industry than it is to the consumers."

This is a key reason why a new arbitration committee is needed. "The LBA is not an arbitrative body in the sense the EU requires, but a managing body that imposes fines, but does not make rulings," said Fischer-Volk. "That means that the only recourse for passengers not compensated by airlines is a civil court. That is of course very cumbersome and very expensive, and it clogs courts with thousands of cases."

The German government is currently in the process of setting up a new independent body, and Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger recently told the Tagesspiegel newspaper that "constructive" negotiations for were in progress.

"That would be a decisive step towards a proper arbitration committee," said Fischer-Volk. "Of course the final step would be that if there was a legitimate claim the airlines would regulate themselves. Then we wouldn't need the committee."

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Sam Edmonds

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