This week the EU is expected to announce a review of laws around airline passenger rights during flight irregularities such as lengthy delays and cancellations.
New rules could make it easier for airlines to avoid expensive passenger compensation requirements when flights are cancelled for reasons well beyond their control, such as last year's Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption in Iceland. During that lengthy event, European airlines were required to pay meal and hotel bills for marooned passengers.
EU passenger rights laws around flight irregularities are more stringent than those in the US. "In Europe, cancellations for any reason result in compensation for passengers, at least in the form of food and lodging, according to EU law. In the US there is no consumer protection under law," said Charlie Leocha, Director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a group that lobbies for traveller rights in the US.
While most US airlines voluntarily assist affected passengers, compensation is arbitrary and varies from airline to airline. During weather events, airlines in the US typically waive change fees, offer refunds and provide meal or hotel vouchers or discount coupons on a case-by-case basis. US airlines are much more likely to offer compensation when the delay or cancellation is their fault (like a mechanical malfunction or a late crew), but they are not required to do so. Compensation is also frequently determined by the fare paid or airline loyalty program status of the passenger.
But according to EU Regulation 261, European airlines are currently required to cover hotel and meal costs of travellers who have had their flights significantly delayed or cancelled - even when the irregularity is not the airlines' fault. According to a European Commission memo, more than 100,000 flights were cancelled during the volcanic ash crisis in April 2010, with more than 10 million people affected. Imagine what those hotel and meal bills looked like!
As a result, one airline, Ireland's Ryanair, now adds a 2 euro fee on all tickets to cover the costs of complying with this regulation. The carrier claims to have lost more than 100 million euros last year due to events beyond its control, such as the volcano and winter storms.
In a statement issued last week, the European Commission promised to open a dialog among various stakeholders that would, among other things, seek "clarification on [airline] liability in the case of extraordinary circumstances."
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