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Air Passenger Rights Under Assault in Europe

Long flight delays have a price, but the airline industry is applying serious downward pressure on European regulators.

Frankfurt airport
Frankfurt airport
Bettina Seipp

BERLIN — Lobbying is usually a hidden job. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the airline lobby’s current involvement in reworking the European Airline Passengers’ Rights Law has remained out of sight.

But the airlines’ chief opponents, European Passengers Federation (EPF), want to start shining the spotlight on the process. The EPF, a group of national and regional passengers’ organizations across the continent, has gone on the offensive in Berlin with a long list of demands.

Since 2005, European Union regulation 261/2004 has overseen compensation claims from passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled. But in the meantime, the debt of airline companies has continued to climb (approaching 3.5 billion euros deeper in the hole every year), and they have come to Brussels for help.

The airlines are clearly having some success in convincing European lawmakers. Since last March, the EU Commission made several proposals for revisions to industry regulations, all of which the German government has thus far agreed to.

“The vast majority of the planned changes are to the detriment of passengers,” argues Josef Schneider, an EPF board member, noting in particular the regulation that compensates passengers for long delays.

Until now, passengers who are kept waiting for more than three hours have a right to compensation. The EU Commision wants to extend that to a five-hour minimum delay, noting that the span of three hours is usually too short to fly in spare parts or an extra aircraft, especially in cases of technical problems in an airport far from the airline’s hub.

The worst part

The EU Passengers’ Rights Laws also apply to long-distance flights that start or end inside the European Union, as long as the flight is operated by an EU airline. And the new regulations say that on flights longer than 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles), airlines will only be liable for damages to passengers if there is a delay of more than 12 hours. In other words, if a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to New York arrives 11 hours late, for example, that would be acceptable according to the EU’s planned changes.

According to Schneider, these extensions to acceptable delays means that “around 72 percent of the passengers who are eligible for compensation now will get nothing in the future.”

Robert Weist, an attorney specializing in airline passenger rights, warns that things could get worse. He says the proposed changes leave much more room for interpretation of circumstances when airlines are released from the obligation to compensate passengers. It used to be limited to events such as extreme weather, pilot strikes and airport closures due to security concerns, but now things like technical problems that arise during flight will also be a reason to release airlines from any obligation to compensate passengers for delays.

“This leads to the passengers carrying most of the risk in the case of a plane with a technical defect,” Weist says. “This is the opposite of the current regulation, which holds that technical problems, which might be a result of wear and tear and lead to a cancelation or delay, are the responsibility of the airline.”

Ronald Schmid, attorney and professor of air traffic law, also sees the airlines as the major beneficiaries of the new EU proposals, including the regulations of passenger rights when planes are stuck on the tarmac and not given permission to take off. The new regulation says that passengers would only have a right to withdraw from the flight if they are made to wait for more than five hours.

Short of that, suffering passengers will have to just wait it out.

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