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.
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.