Passenger rights 'cause confusion'

For the first time, the airline industry collectively has come out in support of passenger rights regulation to guarantee protection of consumers in the case of delays and flight cancellations.

But the industry - at its annual meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, last week as the International Air Transport Association - also expressed alarm at the "proliferation of uncoordinated and extra-territorial passenger rights legislation and regulation that is the cause of confusion among passengers".

According to IATA's director-general Tony Tyler - the former chief executive of Cathay Pacific Airways - there has been an explosion in passenger rights regimes around the globe in the past decade and around 50 countries now have them.

"Airlines are aligned with governments in wanting to get their passengers to their destinations on time," Tyler says. "But sometimes that is just not possible. Governments should set some simple guarantees on what passengers should expect in such situations.

"But unharmonised and extra-territorial regulations can cause utter confusion for international travellers.

In fact, the main target of IATA's concerns is the European Union, which has the most generous compensation for delayed passengers  and those stranded by cancelled flights and is contemplating tightening the obligations on airlines even further.

This has especially caused concern among regional feeder airlines on tight margins which could soon be held accountable for delays by mainline long-haul carriers, with penalties metered according to the length of the delay.

For example, if a feeder service was an hour late and resulted in a missed long-haul connection and the next long-haul service wasn't available for 12 hours, the regional airline could be liable for compensation calculated around a 12-hour delay.

One of the intended consequences of such a regime is that airlines would start scheduling minimum connecting times of three to four hours to protect themselves from compensation claims.

There's also the prospect of up to three competing compensation regimes being involved in a two-sector long-haul journey to the USA, for example.

"Being stuck in Europe on a disrupted trip from the United States to Israel is bad enough for a passenger," says IATA's Tony Tyler.

 "Regulation shouldn't worsen the situation by presenting them with a bewildering array of three conflicting passenger rights regimes.

"Governments are turning a blind eye to the problems that they are creating. We want regulators to understand that travellers are our customers. And we want customers to have the best possible experience because our businesses depend on customers coming back."

IATA is proposing a set of "core principles" that "help regulators recalibrate their impression of what the air travel experience is". According to IATA, regulations should:

- Be clear, unambiguous and aligned with international conventions.

 - Allow airlines the ability to differentiate themselves through their customer service offerings above a basic common standard

- Ensure passenger access to information concerning their rights, fares, including taxes and charges (prior to purchasing a ticket), the actual operator of the flight, and regular situational updates in the case of service disruptions.

- Reflect the principle of proportionality and the impact of extraordinary circumstances when determining compensation

- Exonerate airlines from liability for safety-related delays and cancellations.

- In the case of denied boarding and cancellations, entitle passengers to re-routing, refunds or compensation where circumstances are within the airlines' control.

- In the case of delays, entitle passengers to re-routing, refunds or care and assistance; and acknowledge that when such delays or disruptions are beyond the control of airlines, market forces should determine the care and assistance available to passengers.

- Ensure that the burden is allocated among the different service providers involved.

"What's needed is a Hippocratic Oath for regulators," Tyler says. "The first principle would be to do no harm - intended or unintended."

Since it is the least profitable industry on earth, I am sympathetic to the airlines. The regional airlines in Europe, for example, worry that the EU passenger rights regime could send some of them broke.

But, if the industry wants public sympathy and support in its battles, it will have to observe the highest standards of behaviour, which excludes, for example, various types of electronic entrapments to filch extra money out of their customers for services that cost them next to nothing to provide.

Do you think more government regulation of the airlines is necessary? Have you encountered situations elsewhere that tell you more regulation is needed?

Sydney Morning Herald