Airlines Strike Back At EU261 Measures As Insufficient

The European Commission has “ignored the vital urgency” of the COVID-19 crisis, one industry representative said.
Credit: European Commission

Three major airline bodies have voiced their dismay at the European Commission (EC) response to the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis, which has left cash-strapped airlines potentially facing unlimited passenger care and assistance bills.

The bodies—which include IATA, Airlines for Europe (A4E) and the European Regions Airline Association (ERA)—welcomed the EC’s clarification that COVID-19 does classify as “extraordinary circumstances” under EU passenger rights regulation EU261.

This means that airlines will not need to pay compensation for flights canceled because of national containment measures such as travel restrictions, lockdowns and quarantine zones.

However, airlines remain liable for passenger care and assistance, which includes meals and accommodation. 

IATA and A4E reacted with dismay to the EC’s latest EU261 guidelines, labeling them disappointing, inadequate and unhelpful.

The bodies had been calling for care and assistance obligations to be limited for COVID-19 flight cancellations and for rebookings or vouchers to be allowed in place of refunds for canceled flights.

“No flexibility on the limitation of obligations was offered during a period of crisis,” IATA and A4E said. “This means that airlines are potentially responsible for unlimited care to passengers, who have been stranded as a result of government decisions to close borders.”

The EC also rejected the airlines’ call to be allowed to offer vouchers for future travel, instead of refunds. Reimbursement has to remain an option in the event of flight cancellations.

IATA regional VP for Europe Rafael Schvartzman said the EC seems to be underestimating the impact of the crisis.

“Faced with a cashflow catastrophe, many airlines can only offer vouchers in lieu of immediate cash refunds for canceled flights,” Schvartzman said. “Fiddling at the edges will not keep airlines in any shape to get the economy moving again when the health crisis abates.”

A4E MD Thomas Reynaert called for an emergency amendment to EU261 and for the stalled redraft of the regulation to be pushed through the European Council before the summer.

The EC proposed revisions to regulation EU261 in March 2013. However, that proposal has been stalled since November 2015 because of a sovereignty dispute between the UK and Spain over Gibraltar. In March 2019, Reynaert said the EU261 redraft could be freed up by the UK’s exit from the EU (Brexit).

Against a growing backdrop of case law and inconsistent enforcement, the EC released interpretative guidelines in 2016 to clarify some of the provisions of EU261, but the base regulation remains unchanged.

Regional airline body ERA joined IATA and A4E in voicing its “profound disappointment” in the latest EU261 guidelines. Like the other bodies, ERA highlighted the unfairness of airlines being expected to provide unlimited passenger care when government border closures are beyond the industry’s control.

“The new guidelines on Regulation 261/2004 (EU261) have shown a huge lack of understanding by the European Commission, with the guidance intended to reassure passengers that their rights are protected, rather than clear measures to support airlines deeply in need and provide flexibility on the limitation of obligations during this period of crisis,” ERA said.

ERA director general Montserrat Barriga said the EC had “ignored the vital urgency” of the COVID-19 crisis and the “enormous financial pressures” on airlines.

“Air connectivity will not be back to normal for many months. And for some airlines, things will never be the same again,” IATA’s Schvartzman concluded. 

Victoria Moores

Victoria Moores joined Air Transport World as our London-based European Editor/Bureau Chief on 18 June 2012. Victoria has nearly 20 years’ aviation industry experience, spanning airline ground operations, analytical, journalism and communications roles.