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Published on Thursday, March 14, 2013

EU overhauls air passenger rights

Passengers will only be entitled to compensation from airlines after delays of at least five hours under new rights announced by the European Commission today.

Previously passengers on short-haul flights could claim compensation after a delay of just three hours or more. Under the new measures, passengers on longer flights up to 6,000 miles will be entitled to compensation after delays of nine hours or more and everyone else will receive compensation after 12 hours.

The EU believes that by giving airlines another couple of hours to repair and aircraft or provide an alternative before compensation kicks in, fewer flights will be cancelled.

However, passenger campaign group said it hoped this proposal would be rejected by the European Parliament. Raymond Veldkamp said Brian Simpson, President of the European Parliament's Transport and Tourism Committee, had indicated Parliament "might go the other way".

The EU has also used its reform of the eight-year-old passenger rights legislation to spell out how much responsibility the airlines should carry for the welfare of their passengers trapped by incidents, such as the ash cloud crisis in 2010 when millions were stranded overseas due to the enforced grounding of all flights. Airlines were forced to pay passengers' hotel bills, at a total cost of more than £1billion.

In future, airlines will only have to pay for a maximum of three nights' hotel accommodation for stranded passenger, although this rule does not apply to passengers with reduced mobility, unaccompanied children or pregnant women.

The new rules, which are expected to come into force next year if approved by the member states and the European Parliament, also clarify what airlines can claim as "exceptional circumstances" to avoid paying compensations.

Mechanical failures onboard aircraft do not qualify as "exceptional circumstances", said EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas, but natural disasters - such as the ash cloud crisis - and air traffic control strikes do. However, airlines will still be obliged to provide stranded passenger with accommodation.

Veldkamp welcomed the clarification, as he said in nearly 40% of compensation claims airilnes had tried to avoid paying by claiming a technical fault amounted to an extraordinary circumstance.

Airlines will also be forced to re-route passengers with rival carriers if a flight is delayed more than 12 hours. Kallas said: "We know that the real priority for stranded passengers is just to get home. So our focus is on information, care and effective  re-routing."

Passengers must be told why their flight was cancelled within 30 minutes of its scheduled departure.

Also, airlines may no longer charge for correcting misspelt names on tickets and they must allow musicians to carry small instruments onboard.

The Commission also wants complaints to be dealt with more promptly. "The main problem for passengers is that, while they have very strong passenger rights defined under EU law, they can have difficulty claiming them and feel frustrated when air carriers do not appear to apply them," it said.

It will make it a requirement for airlines to acknowledge receipt of a complaint within a week and provide a formal reply within two months. A survey carried out in Denmark showed that just 2-4% of passengers entitled to financial compensation received it.

If passengers are on an aircraft left sitting on the tarmac for more than five hours they will have the right to be let off, and if the tarmac delay is more than an hour the airline must provide air conditioning, use of toilets and water.

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