Airlines must refund passengers for cancelled flights, EU says
Waiting for a flight which, if it failed to take off, you would be compensated before Brexit. Picture by Bill Heaney
Push by some member states to water down passengers’ rights rejected by European Commission
The European Union’s executive body had been under pressure to ease passenger rights regulations to allow airlines to withhold cash refunds from passengers by a group of member states concerned about a collapse of the aviation industry due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But the push has failed, and the commission is threatening to move against member states for failing to implement EU law if they fail to enforce passenger rights and hold airlines to account.
“If you have lost your job, if this is your entire holiday budget for travelling that sits in these tickets you cannot use anymore, then you need a refund. And that is why we say this is your right, full stop,” said commissioner Margrethe Vestager.
She added that letters were being sent out to member states that were failing to force airlines to respect passenger rights: the first step in infringement procedures when countries fail to implement EU law.
“We expect the member state to correct it immediately, otherwise the next step will be taken,” Ms Vestager said.
France and the Netherlands spearheaded a push to persuade the commission to water down the regulations requiring cash refunds as a series of airlines including Air France-KLM were forced to seek government support to avoid collapse.
A number of airlines including Ryanair and KLM had left passengers awaiting payments as the row played out, as airlines slash jobs and struggle with a backlog of millions of refund requests as the pandemic wipes out demand for flights and grounds the majority of fleets.
But the commission insists the rules cannot be changed, and suggests that if airlines want fewer passengers to seek cash refunds they should make vouchers more attractive, for example by adding perks or making them redeemable for cash if unused by their expiry date.
“If one can afford to take a voucher or would like to support the businesses by taking a voucher, this can be made attractive,” Ms Vestager said, adding that long delays before reimbursement were “not what is supposed to happen”.
Support for relaxing the rules had been widespread among member states, but the commission said it was not unanimous.
“Yes, there have been a number of member states that have also spoken for changing the regulation … but there have also been a number of member states that have been expressing very clearly the doubts,” the EU official said.
“The commission has taken very clearly the opinion that it is not going to weaken the existing passenger rights that are extremely fundamental.”
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