For all people in Europe, the current crisis has a tremendous impact on all areas of live. Not least for passengers. Whilst airlines and tour operators are lobbying for watering down current EU law, the Chamber of Labour and consumer protectors are fighting for those who are affected.
The spread of the Coronavirus and the necessary measures it entailed has thwarted the travel plans of thousands of people. Due to the current situation, many are not able or do not want to set out on their booked journey. Because it is almost impossible to estimate the duration of the crisis, even journeys planned for the summer months, are in doubt. This of course gives rise to many questions regarding costs incurred and their possible refund. At the same time, the travel industry voices demands regards relaxing travel laws, which are clearly rejected by the Chamber of Labour.
Corona and air passenger rights
In case of delays or cancellations, the EU Flight Compensation Regulation provides for compensation and care services - for example catering and accommodation in case of longer delays or booking changes - for affected passengers. Due to the fact that in practice passengers often find it difficult to assert their rights, negotiations have been taking place since 2013 to revise the regulation. However, the Chamber of Labour criticises the fact that from a passenger point of view, these negotiations have gone in the wrong direction.
One of the most controversial points of the regulation have been the so-called “extraordinary circumstances”. According to the current regulation, compensation does not have to be paid, if the cancellation is due to such “extraordinary circumstances” – hence all circumstances, “which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken”. In a Communication Notice which had been published in light of current events, the Commission reaches the conclusion that such extraordinary circumstances exist in view of the current pandemic and the border closures associated with it. However, decisions have to be made from case to case. Nevertheless, in case of their flights being cancelled by airlines, passengers are entitled to the refund of their ticket price – also as cash refund, if requested. In its Communication, the Commission did not address the demand, voiced by various airline lobby groups to restrict the obligations regarding taking care of passengers in view of current circumstances. On the contrary, it states that airlines according its interpretation are obliged to fulfil the obligation of care “even during a long period” and that they are not exempted from all obligations, when the situation is the result of “extraordinary circumstances”. “In light of the mass cancellations and delays passengers and transport operators face due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commission wants to provide legal certainty on how to apply EU passenger rights”, emphasised EU Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean. However, due to the known fact that the Commission cannot unilaterally change the legal situation, the Communication is not legally binding. Hence, the interpretation remains with the European Court of Justice.
Package tours, hence journeys, where at least two different travel services were booked (for example transport and accommodation) may be cancelled both by tour operators and passengers if “extraordinary circumstances” occur at the holiday destination or its closer vicinity. In this case, passengers have the right to full compensation of their travel price. Also, regarding this entitlement, travel agencies and tour operators are currently putting pressure on the Commission and request an amendment of the Package Travel Directive, to enable them to compensate of passengers in form of vouchers.
Chamber of Labour against watering down consumer rights
From the Chamber of Labour’s point of view, it is clear that consumers must have the choice whether they want to receive a cash refund of the costs of their cancelled package tour or whether they are willing to accept a voucher. However, in case of vouchers it should be guaranteed that these are valid for an unlimited period and that they are safeguarded in case of insolvency. However, according to the current legal situation the latter is uncertain. An alternative, which would give clarity, would be the adoption of a government insolvency insurance at national level. It must be ensured that “passengers become double victims of the coronavirus pandemic”, as also expressed by Karima Delli, Head of the European Parliament’s Transport Committee.
Both Chamber of Labour and ÖGB use a Website, which has been specifically set up to inform and to answer questions on the pandemic and its impact, including the issue of “Leisure time and Travel”. Apart from that, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Consumers Association of Austria have opened a Service hotline on Travel and Corona.