Do European Passengers Have More Rights Than U.S. Travelers?

VIDEO: Severe weather grounds more than 11,000 scheduled flights.
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The recent really bad weather periods in both Europe and The U.S. resulted in huge numbers of flight delays and cancellations. Several travelers apparently noticed that airlines did a lot more for travelers in Europe than those in the U.S.

Why is that?

One reader asked, simply:

"Do European travelers have more rights than U.S. travelers in the event of major flight delays and cancellations?"

The short answer is, "Yes, European requirements are much stronger, but enforcement seems to be a bit inconsistent."

In February 2004, the European Parliament and Council of 11 established "common rules of compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding and cancelation or long delay of flights," and the resulting Regulation 261/2004 detailed the requirements. Here's a summary of the key provisions, along with highlights of the differences between U.S. and European requirements.

Application

The regulation applies to (1) passengers on any flight departing from an airport within the European Community and (2) passengers flying on an airline based in the EC from any other country to an airport within the EC, unless compensated in the originating country. As in the U.S., passengers must comply with check-in and ticketing requirements.

What's Different: U.S. rules, in general, do not apply to flights to the U.S. from other countries, even on U.S. airlines. And although the European regulation does not apply to travelers traveling "free of charge," it specifically does apply to travelers on frequent flyer tickets.

Denied Boarding

When an airline expects to "bump" travelers, the airline must first call for volunteers in exchange for whatever the airline and traveler can agree on. If not enough travelers agree, the airline must either re-route them or compensate them. The compensation scale ranges from $300 to about $825, depending on the distance to the travelers' final destinations.

What's Different: U.S. rules limit bumping compensation to the sole case of overbooking, but European regulations apply to bumping for any reason. This is a big difference – a major weakness in U.S. requirements, but one which it appears the U.S. Department of Transportation does not intend to correct in the new rules it plans to issue in April. Also, U.S. compensation varies by the amount of delay rather than distance.

Cancelation and Delay

If a flight is canceled, an airline is required to offer "assistance," including a ticket refund or re-routing at either the earliest opportunity or at a later date of the traveler's convenience. If a traveler selects a refund, it will be of either (1) the unused portion of the ticket or (2) the full price of the ticket in the event that completion of the trip would no longer serve the purpose of the travel. And the regulations guarantee the right to a refund even if an airline notifies travelers of cancelations two weeks or less before the scheduled departure unless the airline can guarantee alternate arrival within a few hours of schedule.

Airlines must also provide denied boarding compensation, as specified above, unless the airline notifies travelers of the cancelation at least two weeks in advance or if it cannot arrange alternate transportation that will get travelers to their destinations within two to four hours of their original schedules (depending on cancelation specifics).

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