By: PHILIP BUSHILL-MATTHEWS
Philip Bushill-Matthews is a Member of the European Parliament and is the Employment and Social Affairs Coordinator for the European People’s Party/European Democrats.
THE FIASCO following the opening of London Heathrow Terminal 5 was inexcusable – especially when BA and BAA have had 19 years to plan it. The cancelled flights, the growing pile of lost bags, and the poor communication throughout to the passenger victims have understandably raised many tempers.
But one of the positive side-effects (though you will of course never read this in the UK national press because it is good news) is that passengers who have suffered undue delays or indeed cancellations can at least get full compensation. Had the Terminal opened five years ago, this would not have been the case. This is all thanks to the EU.
In April 2003 the European Parliament signed off an EU Regulation which came into force the following year. For the first time, passengers hit by significant delays of five hours or more would be legally entitled to a full refund. They also had to be offered free food and drinks, plus free overnight accommodation or a free trip home. Passengers bumped off a flight because of over-booking by the airline would also get up to 400 pounds sterling compensation – on top of a full refund or a re-booking option.
It was no surprise that the airlines were unhappy when this ruling came out, and did their best to fight it. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) took a case to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) claiming that the Regulation would be unfair to its members as well as fail to protect consumers. The ECJ ruled against IATA on both counts. Commenting on the ruling at the time, the Head of IATA lamented that it was “a sad day for international law and the airline industry, a sad day for Europe and a sad day for consumers”. Airlines may indeed have been sad, but Europe and consumers are very much happier.
But there is still a problem. Some of the wording in the Regulation is not as clear as it could be. Article five of the Regulation allows airlines to duck their responsibility if there were “extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken”. The performance of Terminal 5 was indeed extraordinary, but there is no way that it should have been allowed to happen. Anyway, the burden of proof would be on BAA and British Airways to show otherwise.
Nonetheless, the European Commission has quite reasonably concluded that the Regulation needs to be toughened up further, and a revised proposal should appear later this year. Passengers may expect to become even happier – but they would be happier still if their flights, and their bags, were on time in the first place.
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