Airline passenger rights weakened by EU as new rules will make it harder to claim compensation

European Commission says resent rules could threaten 'financial survival' of airlines

Airline passengers whose flights are delayed will get fewer rights under new proposals from the European Commission.

Rules likely to take effect next year will make it harder to claim compensation, cap the airlines’ duty of care and exempt airlines flying small planes on short routes from any liability.

At present, any departure delay of three hours or more is counted as a cancellation, entitling passengers to cash compensation of hundreds of pounds – unless the airline can demonstrate that the cause was “extraordinary circumstances”. The trigger point is to be increased to five hours for flights under 2,175 miles; nine hours for trips up to 3,730 miles; and 12 hours for longer flights.

The Commission said the aim of the changes is “to give the air carriers a reasonable time to solve the problem and encourage them to operate the flight, not just cancel it”.

Passengers on planes with fewer than 80 seats, flying less than 155 miles will lose any entitlement if a flight is delayed. The Commission said “The cost of the obligations under the Regulation can go out of proportion with the carriers' revenue”. On larger planes and longer flights, the rule on care for delayed passengers is to be simplified, with all passengers entitled to meals and – if necessary – accommodation after a two-hour delay. At present travellers going further than 930 miles must wait for the delay to build to three or four hours.

Liability in the event of very long delays is to be capped for the first time. Currently airlines have unlimited responsibility to provide meals and accommodation, whatever the cause of the delay. During the volcanic ash disruption in 2010, several airlines sought unsuccessfully to limit their obligation.

The Commission said that the present rules could threaten the “financial survival” of airlines. Accordingly, liability will be capped at a maximum of three nights’ accommodation.

Airlines have reacted angrily to other proposals. Ryanair attacked a plan to force carriers to switch passengers to other airlines after a 12-hour delay. A spokesman for the Irish carrier said: “It will unfairly and disproportionately increase costs for low-fare airlines, which do not participate in airline alliance programmes.”

The Board of Airline Representatives in the UK said that small regional airlines operating to airports such as Paris or Amsterdam, with connecting long-haul passengers, would still be exposed to over £500 per person in compensation if a short delay led to a missed connection.

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