By Angela Rees
Two of the biggest frustrations faced by air passengers are long delays and lack of information provided by airlines, but new rights for travellers could change all that.
Under tougher rules proposed by the European Commission, delayed passengers will have the right to disembark from a plane after five hours of waiting and be fully reimbursed for the price of their ticket.
Air carriers would also be legally obliged to provide information on airport delays or cancellations within 30 minutes of the scheduled departure time.
The proposals have yet to be approved by EU transport ministers and MEPs, but EU officials say the complaints procedure also needs improving.
Under the new rules airlines will have to operate an efficient complaints system, including acknowledging receipt of the complaint within one week and providing a formal reply within two months.
The failure to respond to correspondence from passengers is one of the biggest complaints about the existing air traveller rights rules, introduced eight years ago.
Lack of speedy information is another, followed by reluctance on some occasions by carriers to offer immediate financial compensation, legally required refreshments and accommodation where applicable.
EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said it is important that passenger rights do not just exist on paper as they need to be relied upon when things go wrong.
"We know that the real priority for stranded passengers is just to get home," he said. "So our focus is on information, care and effective rerouting. The aim is to get passengers where they want to be as quickly as possible while giving the airlines the time they need to sort problems out."
The EC said the existing charter of passenger rights is "one of the resounding achievements of EU transport policy", but acknowledged that a series of legal challenges by air carriers highlighted the need to clarify some of the rules and update others.
Polls taken in the UK, Germany and Denmark show that 75 per cent of passengers facing delays or cancellations were offered rerouting, but additional services they should receive under existing rules, such as meals, refreshment and accommodation, were offered in less than 50 per cent of cases.
In Denmark, just 2 per cent of air passengers entitled to financial compensation actually received it. In Germany, more than 20 per cent of passengers who submitted formal complaints received no response from their air carrier.
The proposals are not all geared towards passengers, however, as they also acknowledge that financial compensation - currently available after delays of three hours or more - should only be considered after a minimum five-hour delay on any intra-EU flight or any international flight shorter than 3,500kms (2,175 miles).
Compensation for other international flights is triggered after nine hours of delay on flights up to 6,000kms (3,729 miles) and after 12 hours for longer journeys.