Air travellers win new compensation rights

Air passengers have won new rights for compensation for overbooked, delayed or cancelled flights as European laws came into effect yesterday amid protests from airlines.

The legislation, hailed as a for victory by consumer groups and MEPs, will mean compensation of up to £420 for travellers bumped off flights because of overbooking.

Serious delays will also mean compensation for passengers on any EU airline flying to or from Europe, including charter flights or low-cost airlines.

The measures have angered the industry, which argues that it will be subject to harsher rules than competitors in other parts of the world. They also say the legislation leaves several grey areas. The budget airline easyJet described the new legislation as "bad", arguing that it would damage the industry.

But Jacques Barrot, the European commissioner for transport, said the boom in air travel needs to be backed by new consumer rights. And officials in Brussels reject claims that costs will inevitably rise. One said: "If you do not overbook, there is no additional cost; if there are no cancellations, there is no cost."

According to the European Commission, around 250,000 air passengers are denied boarding at EU airports each year because the flights are overbooked. Under the new laws, compensation for flights of 1,500km or less will be ¤250 (£175), with ¤400 (£275) for those between 1,500km and 3,500km and ¤600 (£420) for longer flights to destinations outside the EU.

The payments will be the same for cancelled flights unless the carrier can prove they were not responsible or had given at least two weeks' notice. Delays of at least two hours will trigger a range of benefits, from free drinks, meals and phone calls to a free hotel room when the next flight is a day away. Financial compensation ­ in the form of a refund of the ticket price, an alternative flight and hotel accommodation if necessary ­ only kicks in after five hours.

Until yesterday the maximum compensation offered by airlines was ¤300 (£205). Budget carriers offered none. Airlines failing to comply with the new rules could face substantial fines, with the Civil Aviation Authority responsible for complaints affecting UK carriers.

The main uncertainty is what constitutes a delay. Airlines are exempt from providing compensation if the cancellation is caused by unavoidable circumstances.It remains unclear if this covers technical problems with aircraft.

EasyJet's chief executive, Ray Webster, said: "We will look after our passengers and will implement the legislation. But what started as a good piece of legislation to prevent traditional airlines bumping off passengers through overbooking has become a bad piece of legislation and will cause unnecessary confusion and conflict."

HOW MUCH CAN PASSENGERS CLAIM?

You are able to claim compensation for problems arising from all flights by a European Union airline from, or to, an airport inside the EU.

Compensation for a delay ranges from £175 (€250) to £420 (€600), providing one checks in on time.

When the delay is five hours or more, the airline must also offer to refund your ticket, and, if relevant, provide a free flight back.

Compensation or refunds may be in cash, by bank transfer or cheque, or in travel vouchers. It must be paid within seven days.

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