National Consumers League

European Union’s scheme for airline passengers’ rights

SG-headshot.jpgIn September 2015, I arrived at JFK airport in New York at 10:30 am for a quick flight to Washington, DC. I had a full day of meetings and was eager to get to the office. To my unpleasant surprise, I ended up arriving home at 6:00 pm. Weather was not a factor for the lengthy delays because the weather conditions were perfect in both DC and New York. Ultimately, American Airlines (AA) noted that it was their own mechanical and crew problems that caused the full day of delays. But, AA did not offer any passengers a dime of compensation for wasting their entire day. This seemed so wrong to me that it sparked my interest in what other countries provide for airline passengers’ rights. 

The National Consumers League (NCL) is advocating to expand airline passengers’ rights so that consumers are fairly compensated after they are wronged. So while in Brussels this week attending the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TADCD), I jumped at the chance to meet with the EU’s head of airline passenger rights when a European colleague offered to set up an impromptu meeting. 

Alisa Tiganj, a Member of the Cabinet of the Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc, who is responsible for overseeing airline passenger rights, was kind enough to welcome me and spend a few minutes discussing the EU scheme.[1] In the US, we have few, if any, passenger compensation obligations for flights that are canceled or delayed, even when the airline is at fault.[2]  By the way, a total of 632 million passengers boarded domestic flights in the United States in the year 2010.  This averages to 1.73 million passengers flying per day.[3] 750 million people used EU airports in 2009.[4] 

NCL would like to see that changed along the lines of what the EU provides.

The EU is made up of 28 member states with a population of 508 million.  We in the US, have a population of 300 million.  If you are a citizen of the EU flying on a European airline and your flight is delayed for more than three hours—or if it is canceled—you’re entitled to compensation. I should add that there are of course “extraordinary circumstances” where no compensation is guaranteed if the fault lies with weather or other force majeure. The general schedule for passenger compensation for delayed or canceled flights is below: 

  • EUR 250 for all flights of 1500 kilometres or less
  • EUR 400 for all intra-Community flights of more than 1500 kilometres and for all other flights between 1500 and 3500 kilometres
  • EUR 600 for all other flights

The rules also state, “Compensation shall be paid in cash, at the passenger's bank account, by bank transfer or by check…. The right to assistance also applies to passengers who face long delays.” The right to assistance means that the carrier should offer these items below for free: 

  • Meals and refreshments in proportion to the waiting time
  • Hotel accommodation for overnight stay if necessary
  • Transport between accommodation and airport
  • Two free telephone calls or to send two telex, fax, or e-mail messages

The latest rules were developed and adopted in 2013. Not surprisingly, the European airlines are fighting passenger claims and challenging the interpretation of the rules in court. But meanwhile, EU consumers are being compensated. All they must do is apply for compensation through an online form. The process is not onerous. 

If airlines have to pay serious compensation for delaying and canceling flights, they will try harder to find a way to get passengers to their destination more efficiently. Right now, American carriers know they can do whatever they want—even keep someone waiting all day—and passengers are left without recourse. That’s a dangerous imbalance in rights and protections and NCL believes that needs to change.