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Originally published March 13, 2013 at 5:34 PM | Page modified March 15, 2013 at 7:44 AM

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Europe moves to strengthen air travelers’ rights

EU clarifying, beefing up passengers’ rights while giving airlines more leeway in extraordinary circumstances.

The New York Times

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PARIS — The European Union proposed a broad overhaul of the rules protecting air passengers on Wednesday, with the aim of clarifying their rights to help and compensation when flights are delayed or canceled. The proposed changes would also seek tougher oversight and enforcement of airlines’ compliance with the law.

The proposal is not completely pro-passenger, however. As announced in Brussels by the European Union transport commissioner, Siim Kallas, it would also significantly roll back airlines’ obligations to passengers who wind up stranded for extended periods because of extraordinary events like the Icelandic volcano eruption three years ago that grounded more than 100,000 flights across Europe.

The proposal, which would require approval by a majority of the EU’s 27 member countries and the European Parliament, aims to address common airline practices that remain a regular source of frustration to travelers. Helen Kearns, a commission spokeswoman, said that if adopted, the new rules probably would enter force before the end of 2015.

Eight years after the EU first introduced its far-reaching package of passenger rights legislation, the law is still not well understood by customers, which critics say leads to frequent abuses by airlines.

“It is very important that passenger rights do not just exist on paper,” Kallas said in a statement. “We all need to be able to rely on them when it matters most — when things go wrong.”

The EU regulation applies to all carriers that take off from an airport in one of the union’s member states, regardless of their nationality. The rules do not apply to non-European airlines on flights that originate outside the EU.

Passengers’ right to know

Among the proposed changes is a rule obliging airlines to inform passengers about the nature of any flight disruption no later than 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time. Passengers who are delayed by two hours or more would be entitled to care and assistance at the airport, including meals and refreshments, regardless of the distance of their flight. After five hours, passengers would have the right to renounce the flight and have their ticket price reimbursed.

In the event of a flight that has already boarded and is delayed by more than one hour on the tarmac, passengers would have the right to free drinking water, access to toilets and medical assistance. Should the tarmac delay extend to five hours, passengers would have the right to cancel their ticket and get off the plane.

The new proposal also clarifies the rights of passengers who miss a connecting flight because of a delay. Travelers would be entitled to care and assistance after two hours of waiting at their connecting airport and financial compensation if their arrival was delayed by more than five hours on any flight of less than 3,500 kilometers, or about 2,175 miles.

For flights of up to 6,000 kilometers, the right to compensation would kick in after nine hours, while for longer flights the deadline would be 12 hours.

Airlines would also be compelled to reroute passengers on another airline — or an alternative transport mode — if they are unable to find an alternate route on their own services within 12 hours of the original departure time.

Rules for handling passengers’ complaints would also be tightened. Airlines would be obliged to establish clear complaint procedures and systems and to acknowledge complaints within a week of receipt. A deadline of two months would be set for airlines to reply formally. “Complaints about air travel amount to 80 percent within the transport sector, which shows the extent of the problem in Europe,” Monique Goyens, director general of the Brussels-based consumer organization BEUC, said in a statement. “We hope this prompts a much-needed upsurge in airlines’ respect for passenger rights.”

Airline groups also cautiously welcomed the proposal. Viktoria Vajnai, a spokeswoman for the Association of European Airlines, in Brussels, described it as “a step in the right direction” for both airlines and passengers.

“We believe that a comprehensive and coherent regulation will benefit not only passengers but the whole aviation industry,” Vajnai said. The Geneva-based International Air Transport Association applauded the new limits to airlines’ obligations as an “important outcome.” But the airline lobby group, which represents 240 airlines worldwide, also cautioned that the regulations might be difficult to enforce outside the European Union if they conflict with other nations’ consumer protection regimes.

It also said that the proposed regulation covering delays to connecting flights unfairly placed the entire burden for compensation on the operator of the first flight, in contravention of existing international rules that require such costs to be shared between affected carriers.

New rules on extreme circumstances

For all the potential benefits to customers, the new rules would set strict limits on the amount of care and assistance airlines must provide in extraordinary circumstances beyond their control — like extreme weather or an air traffic controllers’ strike.

Current rules provide for an unlimited right to such care, but airlines have long argued that this places an unfair financial burden on them. During the weeklong volcanic ash cloud crisis in 2010, for example, global airlines claimed nearly $2 billion in lost revenue and added customer-care expenses.

Even during the ash-cloud disruption, though, many airlines resisted meeting their legal obligations. In January of this year, the European Court of Justice ordered the Irish budget carrier Ryanair to reimburse a passenger for more than 1,100 euros, or $1,430, for expenses she incurred after the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

Ryanair had challenged the right of Denise McDonagh of Dublin to compensation from the airline for a week’s worth of hotel and meals when she was stranded in Faro, Portugal, arguing that the closure of European airspace due to the volcano’s ash cloud was a particularly extraordinary circumstance that should have exempted it from the obligation to provide unlimited care to passengers.

Under the new proposal, airlines would have to pay only for a maximum of three nights of hotel accommodation in such situations. Beyond that, airports and local authorities would be expected to prepare contingency plans for dealing with mass disruptions.

Rights to financial compensation would also be significantly curtailed. The proposal extends the delay threshold for any compensation to five hours from three hours currently for intra-European flights But the right to compensation for inter-continental passengers would not kick in until a delay reached at least nine hours.

BEUC, the European consumer rights group, said it was disappointed by the new limits on passenger care and compensation, but it said it welcomed the clarification of legal gray areas that until now have often made it difficult for passengers to seek redress.

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