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When the new rights were introduced last February, the package was described by the EU's PR team as "a concrete example of how the Union benefits people's daily lives". The rules prescribe the help that airlines must give when flights are delayed, and stipulate payments that passengers can expect in the event of cancellations - up to €600 (£420). But the way that the regulations have been drafted enables airlines to avoid paying out in many cases.

The cancellation payments do not apply in "extraordinary circumstances". Those on the dozens of cancelled flights due to bad weather in the north-east US last weekend would expect no compensation - but the term has also been invoked when mechanical problems and strikes have grounded flights.

The Independent has asked seven of Britain's leading airlines for the number of payments made for cancellations since the rules took effect. The only precise figure was provided by Monarch Scheduled: zero, because it says it has not cancelled any flights in the past year. Other airlines declined to give specific figures or, in the case of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, said they did not know.

Passengers have complained that very long delays amount to cancellations - but by operating a flight with the original flight number, the airline escapes liability. Dr David Harbord, a passenger on Thomas Cook Airlines from Stansted to Vancouver, won a case in the small claims court recently, when a judge agreed that a 24-hour delay counted as a cancellation. The airline is considering an appeal.

In the case of delays, the cause is irrelevant: free refreshments and, if necessary, accommodation, are supposed to be provided for delays of at least two hours for shorter flights.

But evidence from some delayed flights suggests that airlines are telling passengers that delays are expected to be under two hours - which saves them having to provide meals and drinks, even if the wait is much longer. The CAA, which is responsible for policing the rules, has not so far fined any airlines for breaches.

Some passengers are angry that the EU did not consider a simpler, no-cost regulation that would reduce delays for many of them: obliging airlines to allow travellers to switch to another flight on the same airline in the event of delays, regardless of the fare paid.

An example is a flight from Edinburgh to London, where British Airways and easyJet serve a choice of airports. In the event of flights to Gatwick, being disrupted, passengers on restricted tickets are not allowed to switch to departures on the same airline to Heathrow or Luton without paying a fee - even though the transfer would not represent a significant cost for the carrier.