The EU Parliament is soon to adopt its official position on the EU Commission proposed revision of air passenger rights.
Last March, the European Commission sent its proposal for revision of regulations 261/2004 (air passenger rights) and 2027/97 (airlines baggage liability) to the European Parliament.
The proposal contains several measures to tighten existing laws, including a waiver on airlines’ limits for lost or damaged wheelchairs.
In September, The European Parliament Committee on Transport and Tourism published a draft report on amendments to the proposal of the EU Commission.
As the EU Parliament is in the process of adopting its official position on the matter, stakeholders and associations are preparing the 11th hour round of fine-tuned proposals and final suggestions to support the work of MEPs.
On 23 September, Reduced Mobility Rights published and submitted its proposals on the revision of both regulations.
“I would like airports and airlines to work together to get the connection right between their differing duties. We really do need to get this right to improve the experience for those who have some need for assistance,” Rt. Hon. David Blunkett MP, Chair, easyjet Special Assistance Advisory Group, recently said. His experience and guidance have been instrumental to the preparation of this proposal.
Towards the end of 2012, Reduced Mobility Rights Limited launched the audit of terminals accessibility and assessment of assistance services for passengers with special needs in airports across the European Union.
We have audited accessibility and assistance services of 18 airports, seven of which among the 10 busiest in Europe by total passenger traffic. This thorough research was crucial to identify critical areas requiring immediate attention. The revision of EC261/2004 presents the opportunity to introduce positive changes aimed at enabling airlines and airports deliver customer service excellence to all passengers.
Our proposals provide efficient tools to address issues like the need of inclusive language, fair competition among air carriers associated to the guarantee passengers may exercise their right to choose European or foreign air carriers without affect to their rights, consumer friendly procedures for replacement or compensation for lost or damaged assistive devices, compensation for missed flights due to delays attributable to airport assistance services, intuitive complaint handling processes and procedures, sustainable Special Categories Passengers Irregular Operations (IRROPS) contingency plans and the need for a greater involvement of NEBs at monitoring and audit level.
Language is an area where immediate action is required. Definitions and symbols used to identify accessible facilities and assistance services are often derogative and indirectly promote social exclusion. Many elderly passengers, as well as passengers with hearing impairments or temporary reduced mobility refrain from accessing assistance to avoid associating to disability.
The use of terminology like “passengers with special needs” instead of “disabled passengers, passengers with reduced mobility, blind, deaf, and mentally impaired” in the context of the revision of (EC) No 261/2004 could represent the ideal starting point for the progressive elimination of degrading definitions. The industry-wide used definition Special Categories Passengers (SCPs) is also fit for the purpose as certain elements of this regulation also relate to unaccompanied children, pregnant women and other groups of passengers requiring individual or group assistance.
In our view, Regulations (EC) No 261/2004 and (EC) No 2027/97 must provide European citizens full access to their rights. Limiting or restricting the scope of applicability of this legislation to European air carriers, or extending limited applicability to foreign carriers deprives the intended beneficiaries of this regulation from the possibility to exercise their right of choice in its fullest extent. Diverse applicability also introduces an element of unfair competition, whereby European carriers are penalized by higher costs, whereas foreign carriers, benefitting from the limited applicability of these regulations, can propose lower prices to consumers. Applicability of these regulations should be equal for European and foreign carriers alike, and should also concern the aircraft used to perform the flight. Where a foreign air carrier believes that an applicable provision of the law of their Country of origin precludes compliance with a provision of these regulations, it may request a waiver of the provision of these regulations.
Consumer friendly procedures
Enacting the instrument to waive the limits of the Montreal Convention on lost or damaged wheelchairs and other assistive devices is the first step of a journey meant to provide passengers with special needs seamless access to the claim and refund process. However, air carriers must make passengers aware of this option at the time of booking, and again at check-in. Airlines must provide passengers with a template of the special declaration of interest.
The introduction of a single claim form, instead of existing requirements to repeat the process at the airport first, and the airline within seven days is another significant step. However, our research found that no airport audited had an established procedure or process to assist the passenger with on-the-spot replacement of the damaged or missing item, albeit not on like for like basis.
Passengers who need a mobility device to go about their daily life shall not be left to deal with chaos, improvisation and lack of preparedness at a time when they are physically, psychologically, and financially most vulnerable.
Airports must adopt a process, and procedures to ensure that passengers with special needs reporting the loss or damage of their wheelchairs or other assistive devices are assisted with adequate care, in a timely manner, and are given on-the-spot replacement of their mobility device, albeit non on like for like basis. Passengers must be entitled to retain the replacement until their personal assistive device is found, repaired, or fully refunded.
Airlines must endeavour to process refunds for damaged or lost assistive devices as soon as possible, in any case within seven business days.
Airport assistance services delays
Occasionally, passengers with special needs miss flights because of delays and errors or delays caused by airport assistance services. While the industry has found ways of self-regulation in case of such occurrences, a standard must be established to ensure passengers with special needs may obtain compensation from the airport managing body when such situations arise.
Complaint handling process
Throughout the research, we found that no audited airport has clear and accessible complaint policies. Most airports provide complaint form on their websites; none of the 18 assessed provides passengers visible, accessible complaint forms inside the terminal buildings.
Both airports and air carriers must ensure that clearly visible, easily and physically accessible complaint forms are available to passengers on websites and inside terminal buildings. Such complaint forms must meet accessibility requirements to ensure all passengers can use them when they so wish.
Special Categories Passengers Contingency Plans
Contingency plans for passengers with special needs are essential to guarantee the wellbeing of the person during an extraordinary event. Persons who rely on the assistance of others are most vulnerable during such events therefore management plans must reflect the additional care required by SCPs.
Contingency plans shall be triggered by delays of more than thirty minutes. Personal assistance, suitable sheltering, food and drinks to meet the dietary and religious requirements of the person must be made available as soon as the contingency plans gets into motion.
Personal support must be provided at all phases of the re-routing or selection of alternative methods of travel. Contingency plans shall identify accessible accommodations suitable for the needs of passengers with special needs and accommodations suitable for guide dogs.
National Enforcement Bodies shall audit contingency plans, and shall have the option of requiring changes to such plans when and where needed.
National Enforcement Bodies must take a proactive role in ensuring application of the regulations by means of auditing and monitoring airports and air carriers. Where possible, they shall be entitled to access all records relating to complaints and incidents.
The European Commission Transport Cabinet shall show zero tolerance towards those Member States who do not provide NEBs with credible and effective enforcement tools (civil sanctions).
“Nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced,” Albert Einstein once said.
By example, the U.K. Government adopted a regime of virtually unenforceable Criminal Sanctions to enforce (EC) No 1107/2006 despite the knowledge “courts can be costly [CAA estimates prosecution costs from £50,000 to £250,000] and time-consuming for both businesses and regulators, generally involving a higher burden of proof and taking longer to process.” Despite hundreds of complaints, the CAA is yet to bring its first case to court.
The European Parliament should be adopting its official position on the revision of air passenger rights within the end of 2013 or the beginning of 2014, hence providing the opportunity to complete the revision of both regulations before the election of the new Parliament on 22 May 2014.