Equal rights for air travellers outside the US and EU?
While there is no broad legislation around travellers' rights in Australia, new consumer laws could be headed in that direction. "We don't have any specific travellers' rights program in Australia," said David Flynn, editor of the Australian Business Traveller website. "However, we do have a new Australian Consumer Law, which among other things makes 'hidden fees' (as are often applied by airlines, especially low-cost carriers) illegal." The new Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, with strong enforcement powers, could be the body that creates further legislation around passenger rights.
As one might expect, the international airline industry is less than enthusiastic about this new wave of governmental intervention into its business practices. Its consternation is evident in a statement provided to BBC Travel by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global trade organization of airlines, which points out potential conflicts with the new rules:
"The Montreal Convention limits a carrier's liability for delays and cancellations in extraordinary circumstances like inclement weather. Some countries have chosen to develop their own rules -- some of which are inconsistent with this convention... IATA continues to believe that in a competitive service industry like aviation, customers are best protected by the discipline of the market. When things go wrong, airlines have every incentive to ensure that passengers are well taken care of to ensure their future loyalty. Punitive legislation, such as that being proposed in the US or that which is being implemented in Europe, will... make travel more expensive for everybody. But it will not melt snow, build new runways to ease congestion, make the sun shine or prevent air traffic control strikes or disruptions."
Individual airlines face a quandary when dealing with new legislation as well.
A Cathay Pacific spokesperson contacted for this column stated, "As a Hong Kong-based airline, Cathay Pacific is governed by the law of Hong Kong and in particular rules and regulations set out by the Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department. In addition, we must comply fully with rules and regulations of countries in which we operate. Unfortunately, there are times in which the regulations of different countries may overlap or even provide contradictory instructions or requirements..."
For now, airlines operating in the EU or US generally comply with regulations in the countries where their aircraft land. For example, starting in August, a British Airways jet stuck on the tarmac for more than four hours at Kennedy Airport in New York is subject to fines imposed by the US Department of Transportation. At the same time, if an American Airlines flight departing London is cancelled, the US-based carrier must offer compensation to passengers according to EU rules. Similarly, non-EU or non-US carriers that have landing rights in the EU or US must abide by local travellers' rights regulations.
So while passenger rights rules and regulations are rapidly evolving in the EU and US, they are still in their infancy in other parts of the world, with little consistency across borders. But that could be changing. "We are definitely seeing strong growth in international travel and expect this trend to continue which will make traveller rights in all areas of the world a focus," said a spokesperson for the Global Business Travel Association, a US-based trade organization representing travel buyers. The attorney Harriman added, "The next step is to reform the Montreal Convention to address modern day issues. If this happens, airlines will have a standard set of rules to follow and consumers across the globe will enjoy basic protections."
Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel.