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Brussels moves on air passenger rights

A bill of rights for European airline passengers could be redrawn amid mounting evidence the flagship measure is being widely ignored.

Jacques Barrot, European Union transport commissioner, is preparing follow-up action to enforce the air passenger rights law, which was introduced two years ago. The directive’s failure is an embarrassment for the Commission, which saw it as a way of demonstrating the ability of Brussels to improve citizens’ lives. Under the directive, travelers are entitled to compensation or refunds for delayed flights. Yet delays are as long as ever. A quarter of inbound and outbound flights at Europe’s biggest airports, are an average of 40 minutes late, according to the Association of European Airlines. Despite a network of national agencies to enforce the directive, frustrated travelers have little recourse other than an expensive court case. Barrot will present a review of its workings in the next few weeks and recommend ways to make it more effective.

The situation highlights the problems Brussels has in making its writ run. Moves to cut mobile phone roaming charges before next summer are also facing opposition from industry and national governments. Airlines are required to give out information on passenger rights, to provide assistance if there is a delay of two hours, including possibly a rerouting or refund. If delays due to overbooking reach five hours they are obliged to give a refund and a free flight home. They can also be asked for up to €5,000 ($6,593, £3,369) compensation. Cancellations are treated differently with airlines able to plead „force majeure” to avoid the financial penalties associated with delays. Barrot told the European parliament many airlines could be “canceling” flights that were actually delayed.

The European Court of Justice is expected soon to define the scope of force majeure after a Danish court asked it to rule whether the SAS airline could invoke it in the case of a passenger seeking compensation. The industry has long opposed the directive. The bodies representing low-cost and scheduled airlines failed to have it overturned in the European court. Meanwhile, frustration continues for the likes of Alisdair Gray, a lobbyist in Brussels. He booked early for his 2006 summer family holiday in Sardinia with Alitalia. When the family arrived at the airport they were told their flight no longer existed. Gray complained under the directive. He was told it was not Alitalia’s fault. „We regret this situation, which took place independent of our will,” an Alitalia staff member told him, rejecting his request for compensation. Alitalia said it was in litigation with Italy’s air regulator over the decision to take away the airline’s concession to run the Rome-Cagliari route but would not comment further. (FT.com)