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Governments in the European Union and the United States began protecting air travellers from airline abuses in just the last six years, with specific rules and regulations backed up by fines for non-compliance. However, governmental intervention on behalf of airline passengers remains spotty in other regions.

Last month, the US Department of Transportation announced a broad array of new rules that, among other things, protect airline passengers from lengthy tarmac delays, raise compensation limits for involuntary bumping, provide a 24-hour grace period for ticket purchases and require fee refunds for lost baggage. "Right now, there isn't much protection, but when the newest rulemaking comes into effect in August, passengers will have significant clarified minimum customer service protections when travelling on US carriers," said Charlie Leocha of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a non-profit organization that lobbies for travellers' rights in the US.

The new US rules are similar to those enacted by the European Union in 2005, which are generally viewed as even more stringent for airlines and more protective of consumers. "These new US rules are a step forward for consumers, but EU rules are still substantially better," said Jonathan Harriman, an attorney at the Anolik Law Corporation in San Francisco, California, which specializes in travel law.

If airlines do not follow these rules, they are subject to governmental fines - some of which are substantial. For example, new tarmac delay rules in the US fine airlines up to $27,500 per passenger if a flight is held on the runway longer than three hours for a domestic flight, or (starting this August) four hours for an international flight. Airlines exceeding that time limit could face paying the government a fine of $11 million for a jumbo jet with 400 passengers on board.

That is good news for airline passengers travelling on carriers operating in the US or the EU, two of the largest airline markets in the world. But what happens when passenger rights are wronged elsewhere?

The answer is murky and confusing - and similar to the environment under which airlines operated prior to the recent passenger rights legislation in the EU and US. For example, airlines in some countries have adopted specific codes of conduct under which they operate and promise to uphold the rights of passengers, while in others, there is only mild governmental intervention. And in still others where there are no governmentally imposed passenger rights laws at all, passengers must rely on oblique "contracts of carriage" or "conventions" drafted and adopted by airlines and governments around the world.

"Outside the EU and the US, there are few if any governmentally imposed consumer protections. Instead, passengers must rely solely on the airline's contract of carriage they agree to when they buy an airline ticket. Before passenger rights laws went into effect in the US, that's all Americans had to fall back on," said Harriman, the travel law attorney.

Airlines and governments around the world have worked together since the 1920s to set up a series of "conventions" under which international airlines operate, such as the Warsaw or Montreal Conventions, which Harriman terms "out of date and out of touch with the problems facing modern air travellers." These conventions are drafted by airlines and frequently protect airline interests more than those of airline passengers. In recent years, with frequent stories of airline tarmac entrapments, passenger bumping and other abuses hitting the headlines, governmental bodies have jumped into the ring, forcing airlines to adopt more passenger friendly policies and procedures.

In 2007, the Canadian government strengthened the Canada Transportation Act to protect passenger rights and set up a web page to communicate what travellers should expect from airlines. "What we have in Canada is more of a voluntary code of conduct among airlines versus a set of government imposed rules and regulations," said Bert Archer, travel columnist for the Toronto Star. Canada's code, for example, sets the limit for tarmac delays at just 90 minutes, but incidents of entrapments or other abuses are rare. "I've rarely heard of any cases of tarmac delays in Canada lasting more than 20 minutes," said Archer. Instead of using fines to enforce passenger rights rules, Transport Canada simply says it will assist passengers in resolving their disputes with airlines.

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