New EU regulations aimed at giving passengers a fair deal when flights are overbooked, delayed or cancelled come into effect on Thursday -- but the new rules are getting a turbulent reception from European airlines.
The new rules could make such situations a bit more bearable
Whether you're traveling on business or jetting off on holiday, long delays and cancelled flights can be expensive and annoying. Even more aggravating? Being told you can't board your flight because it's been overbooked.
The European Commission has decided that passengers are getting a raw deal and has replaced outdated legislation on passenger rights with a new law, which takes effect on Feb. 17.
In addition to doubling the compensation limit paid to passengers who are bumped from an overbooked flight, the law will compensate passengers in the event of cancelled flights, which weren't covered under the old legislation. Passengers can demand compensation ranging from €250 to €600 ($325 - $778), depending on the length of the flight. In the case of delays -- also not covered by the previous law -- passengers are now entitled to a ticket refund if the delay is five hours or more. In addition, airlines may, under certain circumstances, have to foot the bill for passenger meals and accommodation.
EU Commission spokesman for transport, Stefaan De Rynck, said the new regulations are aimed at discouraging airlines from overbooking. On average, airlines overbook by 20 percent, claiming that's the number of people who don't show up for their flight.
"We feel that increasing compensation will dissuade airlines from overbooking," De Rynck said. "Also, we feel there have to be some basic rules. They shouldn't go into too much detail as the airline has to be left room for its own policy, but there should be some parameters, because passengers were really the weaker element in this story."
Airlines will have to pay up if take off is delayed by several hours
The new laws have angered airline associations. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said that among the problems it has with the "flawed" regulations is that carriers may be held responsible for circumstances beyond their control, such as bad weather, or an air traffic control strike. And this will ultimately lead to less convenient service for passengers, said Tony Concil, press spokesman for IATA.
"Airlines have been trying to keep connection times to a minimum to make travel as convenient as possible," he said. "If they now risk getting severely penalized whenever they miss a connection, then the natural inclination will be to increase connection times so as to reduce that risk."
The EU said this won't be the case, as airlines will not be held responsible if they can show that there were extraordinary circumstances that led to a cancellation or delay. "But the burden of proof is on them," De Rynck said.
Low-cost carriers are particularly concerned about the effect the new regulations could have on their industry, as the across-the-board compensation levels could see budget airlines paying out amounts that far exceed ticket prices.
"The fixed sum payable as compensation in the case of cancelled flights is disproportionate to the level of the low fares paid by consumers," said Wolfgang Kurth, president of the European Low Fares Airline Association (ELFAA) and CEO of German budget carrier Hapag-Lloyd Express.
The ELFAA and IATA are among the organizations that have filed legal challenges against the new EU regulations, though the European Court of Justice won't hear the cases until September or October of this year. The airlines say that could be too late for carriers which are already operating close to bankruptcy and could be forced out of business by large compensation bills.
The EU Commission, though, fails to see how that could happen. "Cancellations do happen, but it's not a regular practice, at least it can't be a regular practice if the airlines care about providing good, reliable service," De Rynck said. "And if they were to reduce the practice of overbooking, how would this introduce extra costs for them? So no, I don't buy that argument."
Low cost carriers fear they'll suffer most from the new regulations
He added that he doesn't think low-cost airlines should be granted either an exemption from the regulations or a different set of regulations that reflect their lower ticket prices.
"Let's not forget that we introduced a single, liberalized airspace in Europe which allowed low-cost airlines to emerge," De Rynck said. "Now it's only fair that they take sufficient regard of passenger rights."
Knowing your rights
Passengers should be aware, though, that the onus is on them to claim the compensation they're due if their flight is delayed, cancelled, or overbooked, because the airlines are unlikely to offer compensation to those who don't ask for it.
Each EU member state has an enforcement body to ensure disputes between passengers and airlines are settled quickly. In addition, the Civil Aviation Authority has the power to prosecute the airline and levy a large fine if the carrier fails to comply with the new regulations.