Three hours late? You must compensate

Europe has confirmed its status as the strictest enforcer of travel consumer rights in the world following a decision that extends the reach of compensation claims for passengers on delayed flights.

The European Court of Justice ruled last week that not only must airlines pay accommodation costs of passengers whose flights are cancelled, but they’re liable for the end-to-end experience of passengers taking complex multi-sector journeys and not just for delays to simple point-to-point flights.

Furthermore, European airlines are the only ones in the world required by law to pay compensation to passengers whose flights are more than three hours late.

Last week’s ECJ ruling supplements a verdict last October that travellers should be recompensed for delays to individual flights.

The ECJ judges were handing down their finding on the case of a woman who booked to fly from Bremen in Germany to Asuncion, the capital of in Paraguay in South America.

According to news reports, her initial flight with Air France from Bremen to Paris took off with a delay of two and a half hours and she missed her connection to the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo, also operated by Air France. She eventually arrived in Asuncion 11 hours late.

Air France was obliged to pay her €600 ($A768) in compensation, but appealed to a German court, which asked the ECJ to rule on whether payment should be made in the case of a flight delay of under three hours when the final arrival was late by three hours or more.

The EU's Air Passenger Compensation Regulation came into effect in 2005 and sets out passengers' rights in relation to denial of boarding, cancellations and delays.

It covers EU airlines flying into or out of the European Union as well as flights departing from the region by non-EU airlines, meaning they could technically affect Qantas in some circumstances such as the re-eruption of the Iceland volcanoes – although Qantas already has comprehensive compensation policies in place.


The European Court of Justice last year ruled airlines were liable for payments of between €250 and €600 ($A320-$A768) for delays, depending on the length of the flight, except if they are caused by extraordinary circumstances beyond the air carrier's control.

Most airlines globally already voluntarily offer passengers compensation as a matter of goodwill to avoid losing their business.

But there is nowhere in the world with such a pro-consumer system enforced by law. The downside for airlines is that the unique European consumer regulations, as well as other imposts such as Europe’s emissions trading scheme, add to operating costs which they must pass on to customers.

As well, Europe’s struggling governments increasingly are imposing high per-head international travel taxes. The UK’s hated Air Passenger Duty is now as much as £92 ($A138) for every long haul traveller arriving in the country.

In 2011, the EU’s biggest low-cost airline, Ryanair hit back against the consumer regulations with a €2 ($A2.50) surcharge on all air tickets it said was necessary to cover the extra costs it faced.

That just served to get travellers’ backs up even more against the surcharging culture which airlines like Ryanair now pursue as a primary means of achieving profitability.

Even though consumer regulations have been significantly tightened across the pond in the past four years, the US Department of Transport has a different approach.

New rules adopted by the DOT in 2009 set fines of as much as $27,500 per passenger when airlines leave flyers stuck on a plane on the ground for more than three hours, adding up to millions if a large plane is involved.

The US airlines have protested loudly, but the new rules have resulted in a dramatic drop in the number of planes subject to long delays.

Have you personally been involved in a European airline compensation case? In your experience, have you come across European airlines that have a poor on-time record? Would you avoid flying with an airline that imposed a surcharge to cover compensation liability?