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New EU Passenger Rights: What You Need to Know

The European commission unveiled a new set of passenger rights last week, which are set to become law in 2015. European passenger protections are important to Americans: They regulate your trips within Europe and your return flight home, and they can serve as a guide to future protections for domestic travelers. What are the details of the proposals? Here's a quick overview.

New Rights

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  • The commission introduced strengthened rules regarding airline responsibility for musical instruments and mobility equipment.
  • There's also an improved mechanism for submission of complaints. Essentially, airlines must provide complaint forms and accept complaints at airports.
  • Airlines must correct misspelled names on tickets, at no cost, up to 48 hours prior to departure.
  • Travelers will be able to use the return portion of a round-trip ticket when they did not use the outgoing portion. (This one will probably draw some airline resistance, as it enables much greater use of the hidden city fare-avoidance system.)
  • Airlines must assure price transparency for ancillary fees as well as for basic fares.

Refinement of Existing Rules

An existing rule that stipulates that airlines must keep passengers informed about delayed or canceled flights has been clarified: Now airlines must inform passengers within 30 minutes of scheduled departure time.

"Extraordinary circumstances" as a trigger for compensation is clarified to mean "circumstances which are not inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier concerned and are beyond its actual control." For example, natural disasters or strikes by air-traffic controllers should be seen as extraordinary, but technical problems identified during routine aircraft maintenance should not.

Current rules call for "assistance" in delays of two, three or four hours, depending on flight distance. The new proposal suggests that assistance be given after two hours, regardless of flight distance.

But the real objective, says the EU, is to get travelers to their destinations as quickly as possible. To this end, the organization suggests that thresholds for financial compensation be set at levels of five, nine, or 12 hours, depending on flight distance. The current level of three hours, says the EU, is too short to permit an airline to replace spare parts and therefore encourages an airline to cancel a flight rather than fix the problem and complete the flight.

Perhaps the most important proposal is this: If an airline can't get a delayed or canceled flight going, or find alternative accommodation on one of its own flights, it must arrange space on other airlines. In effect, this is the equivalent of the pre-deregulation Rule 240 in the U.S. (that so urgently needs reinstatement).

Limits on Assistance

Airlines would not be responsible for indefinite compensation in the event of major disruptions such as the ash cloud that covered Europe for many days in 2010. Instead (except for travelers of limited mobility), the normal requirement for assistance (think hotel accommodations and meals) will expire after three days. This rule is intended to protect airlines from financially onerous cash drains due to really long delays.

The Details

Overall, these proposals seem reasonable—and they're a good model for some passenger protections sorely needed in the U.S. and elsewhere. Check here for the full details.

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