The European Commission has stepped up efforts to protect air passengers facing delays and cancellations, giving airlines and EU member states a six month ultimatum to fall in line with EU law or face legal action.
"We must make sure that airlines and member states fully comply with their obligations," EU transport commissioner Jacques Barrot said on Wednesday (4 April), stressing "the commission will give them six months to make the air passengers regulation work."
The legislation - meant to protect passengers in cases of denied boarding, cancellations, long delays and involuntary downgrading - came into force two years ago but airlines keep dragging their feet on implementation.
Under the rules, an airline - if it is responsible for a flight disruption - must provide accommodation and meals, pay compensation of up to €600 or offer re-routing and refunds.
But the commission's latest evaluation report shows that carriers "too often play the exceptional circumstances card" blaming e.g. weather conditions or unexpected flight safety shortcomings for cancellations in order to avoid paying out.
Brussels also accused airlines of reclassifying cancellations as long delays, failing to offer passengers a choice between a refund and re-routing and failing to inform them about their rights.
Low cost carriers were singled out as the worst at minimising passengers' discomfort, the EU's executive arm said.
Between February 2005 and September 2006, national authorities across the EU received more than 18,000 complaints from air passengers, but only 14 percent of them were successfully resolved.
Most of the claims came from the UK (6,090), France (2,700) and Italy (2,557), while Latvia (24), Luxembourg (15) and Malta (13) are at the bottom of the name and shame list.
The Association of European Airlines (AEA), which represents big carriers such as British Airways, Germany's Lufthansa, and Air France-KLM, welcomed the commission's report.
The trade body also took a swipe at low-cost carriers, saying they create a competitive advantage by non-compliance with the EU rules, Reuters news agency reported.
The European Low Fares Airlines Association (ELFAA), which speaks for companies such as Ryanair and easyJet, says the EU regulations are confusing and unfair, however.
"The European Commission has yet to recognise how disproportionately onerous it is for low-cost airlines to impose flat rates of compensation which far exceed even the highest fares offered by ELFAA members," it said in a statement cited by Reuters.
EU officials are now set to visit airports to see if airlines are living up to their obligations.
They will also hold talks with national enforcement bodies, responsible for complaint handling and enforcement of the legislation during the coming six months. But if the process proves fruitless, legal action will follow.