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Ensuring Air Passenger Rights are Not a Flight of Fancy

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To paraphrase former football player and accidental philosopher Johan Cruyff: "Every advantage has its disadvantage." Legislation that sets out to do good can have bad side-effects, some foreseen, others unexpected. When MEPs scrutinise proposals for EU laws, they look at ways to minimise the impact of the foreseen and try to prepare for the unexpected.

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On Thursday the European Parliament will vote on a report that suggests ways to improve existing legislation on air passenger rights. The original legislation was a response to the liberalisation of the European aviation market and aimed to prevent airlines taking advantage of passengers in the pursuit of profit.

Up until the 1980s aviation in Europe was high on regulation and short on competition, resulting in a market that struggled to take off. Following the example of the US that lifted aviation restrictions in the 1970s, the EU set out to gradually liberalise air transport between 1987 and 1997. This fundamentally changed aviation in Europe. Flying changed from being a privilege open to a few to being the preferred long-distance travel option of the many. It made hopping on a plane an affordable option and, at a stroke, destinations such as Spain, Italy and Greece came within easy reach. Not only did travellers come to enjoy much cheaper flights, they could also choose from more airlines, more flights and more destinations. Since 1992 the number of intra-EU routes has increased by more than 40% and the number of airlines by 25%.

However, one effect of liberalisation was for airlines to focus on increasing efficiency - sometimes at the expense of passengers. So as a counterweight, air passenger rights were introduced in 2005. For the first time air passengers benefitted from the same rights regardless of where they flew in Europe. The legislation spelled out what protection they had in case of cancellation, delay or if denied boarding.

But although these rights were a valuable addition, they were far from perfect, as became clear when an ill-behaved volcano in Iceland decided to spew ash and paralyse aviation across Europe in April 2010. Thousands of passengers stranded far from home struggled to claim what they thought they were entitled to from airlines absolving themselves from any responsibility due to "extraordinary circumstances".

This confusion led to both the Commission and the Parliament taking another look at air passenger rights. On Thursday MEPs will vote on a report by the transport committee containing a raft of recommendations to provide more clarity, improve legal certainty and ensure uniform application of the rules across the EU.

The report sets out to make complaining easier and provide passengers with more and clearer information, especially on what the real price of the ticket will be, as airlines do not always include all costs in the advertised price. Other recommendations include better protection for disabled passengers and the right for travellers to carry a reasonable amount of hand luggage including anything bought at airport shops. It also calls for the right to compensation if luggage is delayed by more than six hours and suggests that information on a flight's energy efficiency and environmental impact should be clearly communicated when people buy their ticket online.

Right now, we don't know the outcome of the vote on Thursday. But what we do know is that MEPs will continue to keep an eye on existing and upcoming legislation to see where improvements will be needed. Every advantage might have its disadvantage, but it's best to keep them to a minimum.

Photo © Vards Uzvards