Why is there such confusion on air passenger rights?

On Wednesday last week my flight from the Alps to London City was cancelled.

In fairness, we all know that these things happen; particularly given the UK's current (and near permanent) 'winter monsoon' status. Instead, I was put on a later flight to Heathrow, about 2 hours to the west by public transport or about 26 miles away by car.

This would have been academic if it wasn't for the 48 hour Tube strike and the fact that I had 2 large bags and an unwieldy pair of skis to schlep across the Capital. They all weighed in at a bantam weight of 50-odd kgs. As I soon discovered, every gust of wind turned me and my skis into a human weather vane sending hoards of weary Londoners scattering in all directions on the rain-soaked streets.

On one particularly long walk, I mused on what my rights were as a passenger. One representative of my airline had informed me in Geneva—with an almost imperceptible shrug of the shoulder to suggest that she wasn't too sure—that 'London is London' regardless as to the airport. Heathrow is the same as Gatwick. Gatwick is the same as Luton. Luton is the same as Stansted. Stansted is the same as City Airport and so on and so forth. If the airline drops me off at any of the these airports then they have discharged their duties.

However, a quick glance at the terms and conditions of the airline the day after suggested that this was not the case. In other words, it had a duty to take me to the original airport (City as opposed to Heathrow). However, the airline staff themselves didn't seem to know what their obligations to me were. I wasn't too sure myself, to be fair:

  • had I inadvertently waived my rights by agreeing to fly to Heathrow just before the flight was cancelled?
  • was the airline obliging me to fly to Heathrow or had I volunteered to do so?
  • what exactly did I say and agree to?
  • what laws applied?
  • is Switzerland part of the EU for these purposes? and, most importantly:
  • why is this so difficult?

Indeed, the typical response of airline representatives of 'you can try to claim [x] back' (after the event) suggests to me that there still needs to be some work done in this area.

As it happens, at almost the same time as my flight was cancelled the European Parliament voted to approve proposals for strengthening such rights (which was very thoughtful of them).

This is what rapporteur Georges Bach had to say,

Air passenger rights concern practically every citizen of the European Union. It's a David vs. Goliath story, as only 2% of passengers actually get compensation after filing a complaint against an airline. I believe that the text we have voted today strikes a reasonable balance between the airlines and the passenger rights. We improved consumer protection on the one hand while recognising the flexibility that this industry requires, on the other

So what does the text include?

  • Rescheduled flights: when a flight is delayed, information on rescheduled flights will need to be made available to passengers no later than 30 minutes after the initial departure time.
  • Luggage: passengers will need to be told early in the booking process about baggage allowances. Hand-luggage allowances will be increased to include a coat, a handbag, and one bag of airport shopping.
  • Complaints: airlines which fail to reply to a complaint within 2 months will be deemed to have accepted the passenger’s claims. If  'extraordinary circumstances' are cited (eg when compensation is not paid), the airline will have to give the passenger a full written explanation. The draft rules include an exhaustive list of such circumstances, including bird strikes, political unrest and unforeseen labour disputes. In long-lasting extraordinary circumstances, such as the 2010 ash cloud crisis, an airline’s liability to pay for passenger accommodation would be limited to 5 nights.

MEPs have also said that national authorities should be given sufficient powers to punish air carriers that infringe passenger rights and should assess their reports on how they help passengers to cope with flight delays and cancellations.

We mustn't forget, however, that there already existing rules in this area (eg the 'Denied Boarding Regulations'). These mean that passengers may be entitled to compensation from the airline if an EU flight they are booked on is cancelled or delayed.  These haven't always worked very well (the airlines have often relied on the 'exceptional circumstances' loophole perhaps a little too much) and the CAA has had to tell airlines off in the past for misleading passengers about their rights under this legislation and not explaining the rules clearly.

There are also the existing Package Travel Regulations too which mean that a holiday maker may be entitled to a refund and/or compensation from the tour operator if the package holiday which they’ve booked isn’t as described.

Is this enough? Well, it is difficult to say as it is very much a balancing act between competing interests. What's more, the proposed text is only the European Parliament's first reading position. It is now down to the Council of Ministers to accept this proposal or adopt its own.

Furthermore, how the proposed new rights—when finalised—will work alongside the different existing rights looks as though it will be something for lawyers to pick through and carefully advise airlines, tour operators and travel agents; taking into account the myriad of ways in which it is possible for a consumer to book a flight (whether on its own or as part of a package holiday, charter or scheduled) and the different contractual and regulatory regimes which apply to those different situations.

And breathe...

In any event, I suspect that if members of the European Council were encouraged to walk three miles in the rain with 50kgs of luggage they might take a more robust approach to the matter...

Area of Interest