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Two steps forward and one step back.

That appears to be the thrust of a new European Union (EU) proposal, unveiled on Wednesday 13 March, to reform air travellers’ rights with a new passenger bill of rights, the first such update since the EU brought in its passenger rights legislation eight years ago.

The proposed rules are intended to clarify traveller rights and airline obligations, as well as identify better passenger treatment in the case of delayed, cancelled or rerouted flights.  If approved, the proposals, which are subject to approval by EU member states and the European Parliament, would become part of European law in early 2015, affecting all carriers that take off from an airport in an EU member state.

The changes come three years after an Icelandic volcano eruption grounded flights for nearly a week and stranded thousands of passengers across Europe, causing headaches for the air travel community and costing airlines some $2 billion in lost revenue and customer-care expenses.

The new measures propose:

  • In the case of flight cancellations, airlines must reimburse passengers’ tickets within seven days or re-route passengers to their final destination
  • If a flight is delayed for more than 12 hours, airlines must reroute travellers, even on rival carriers
  • In the case of long delays, airlines must provide care in the form of meals, accommodation and transportation for delays of two hours or more for flights of 1,500km or less; three hours or more for flights between 1,500km and 3,500km; four hours or more for flights more than 3,500km.
  • Airlines must also inform passengers about delays and provide an explanation no later than 30 minutes after scheduled departure time
  • Airlines must acknowledge receipt of a complaint within one week and provide a formal reply within two months

Though the proposed passenger bill of rights will definitely help travellers, critics contend that they fall short – and even restrict rights – in some regards.

Airlines would not be liable for delays and cancellations due to extraordinary circumstances including extreme weather, air traffic controller strikes or natural disasters.

In addition, airline compensation for lodging in the case of delays and cancellations would be capped at three nights hotel accommodation. Beyond that, the responsibility for lodging displaced travellers would lie with local authorities, not airlines.

Financial compensation for delays would also be curtailed. Passengers on intra-European flights would have to be delayed for at least five hours before being eligible for compensation; while those on inter-continental flights would have to experience delays of at least nine hours before rights to compensation kick in.

Airlines have also been given more time to respond to passenger complaints and more time to reroute passengers in the case of cancellations or delays – for example the delay threshold for intra-European flights would grow from three to five hours under the new rules.

Critics also contend that the measures are inherently weakened because passengers’ widespread ignorance of their rights is often exploited by airlines – who will not offer accommodation, reimbursement or re-routing unless specifically asked.

What’s more, the measures don’t specify how the European Commission will enforce regulations or penalise airlines that don’t satisfy traveller rights.

For these reasons, critics, such as the BEUC, the European consumer rights group, believe the proposed measures don’t go far enough.

“The Commission has missed the opportunity to put an end to many existing unfair contract terms,” the BEUC said in a statement. “Rights which exist on paper but left unrealised mean passengers are doubly stranded. So we hope this prompts a much-needed upsurge in airlines’ respect for passenger rights.”

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