A European vision for passengers: protecting EU passengers' rights in tomorrow's transport
Speech from Vice-President Siim Kallas Commissioner for Transport, LTTL Forum, Catholic University, Leuven, 6 December 2011
Europe's success in securing and upholding passenger rights is one of the resounding achievements of EU transport policy. These rights are an emblem of EU culture and vision, protecting our citizens as they exercise their entitlement to freedom of movement, a fundamental right in itself.
This basic protection has, however, not always accompanied the gradual removal of borders or the boom in personal travel we have seen over the last decades. For millions of people, international travel has moved from being a luxury to an affordable reality.
Now, when passengers are delayed, they no longer have to puzzle out for themselves what has gone wrong. They have a right to information and they know they can demand it from their transport company. And passengers with disabilities and reduced mobility qualify for special attention.
Securing these basic rights took a long time to negotiate – but I am pleased to say that the EU has delivered on its promises.
The EU began work in this area in the early 1990s with rules on denied boarding on aircraft caused by overbooking. Since then, we have worked to strengthen passenger rights, starting with the aviation sector and then expanding into the other modes of transport.
With the new regulation for coaches and buses due to enter into force in 2013, we can now proudly say that the EU is the first, and only, region in the world whose passengers enjoy comprehensive and integrated basic rights in all modes of transport.
Passengers are justified in expecting the same basic level of protection wherever they go. They find it easier to make use of their rights if there is an easily understandable European system, not a confusing patchwork of national rules.
EU passenger rights ensure uniform access conditions to transport and a basic level of service quality wherever people travel. Passengers expect a service that guarantees non-discrimination, transparency of travel information and conditions and dignity of treatment, including at security checks.
These rights, and others, are now backed up Europe-wide. They set out criteria and conditions for possible compensation for delays, re-routing or ticket reimbursement, assistance – including meals, and if necessary accommodation.
Of course, they also benefit business - Europe's transport operators, in other words in creating equal conditions for competition within a specific mode of transport like rail or between different modes of transport, such as high speed trains and planes, and also when different transport modes are not competing with each other but combined – a "through ticket" journey by train to port, then a sea crossing to take another train at the other end, for example.
The European Commission's aim is to improve mobility for Europe's citizens by better linking all the different modes of transport. We want to encourage such combined journeys as a reliable alternative for our citizens.
These types of journey merit more of our attention because travellers should feel that their trip will not be a risky or stressful event that might be disrupted at any stage. But such travel will only be attractive if the same basic conditions for transport access, service quality and protection apply across the board.
This is an area where we will look for more convergence on rights, because there are still significant differences in the rules between the transport modes: scope of application, exemptions, right to assistance, amounts of compensation available, among many others.
Despite the success, there are some fundamental questions which need to be resolved.
In the last few years, our passenger rights laws have been tested to a degree that nobody could have foreseen. I am thinking primarily of aviation: the Iceland volcanic ash crisis of spring 2010 which caused the temporary closure of European airspace, or the severe winter disruptions at the end of the same year.
European passengers came out of several major crises far better than if the various regulations had not been in place.
The volcanic ash cloud, in particular, showed how important these regulations are. Since then, public authorities, travel operators and other involved parties have joined passengers in becoming more aware and responsive to these rights.
But these crises also demonstrated the need to modernise and tighten some elements of today's rules. We need consolidation and clarification to ensure equal operating conditions for all travel operators and carriers, and we need to move ahead on integrated ticketing and intermodal rights.
Overall, the legal package in place today is a good one – after all, it survived the Icelandic volcano. But there are definitely shortcomings, and we are about to launch a public consultation to ask all interested parties what they think.
Since aviation was the first EU transport sector to benefit from passenger rights rules, this is where we have the most and best experience.
It is clear that this specific piece of legislation needs some changes. And in general, the problems identified here also apply to other sectors.
Removing loopholes and increasing consistency of rights applied across the transport modes imply strengthening passenger rights.
Firstly, implementation and enforcement of the rules. This is the key issue – and where each National Enforcement Body plays a vital role, especially since the Member States vary widely in how far they make sure the rules are applied and in their procedures for handling passenger complaints. In both these areas, there should be more EU coherence.
Enforcing the rules is essential. If this is not done effectively, transport operators have no economic incentive to comply. Not only do national differences in applying the rules confuse both passengers and transport operators alike, they also create damaging distortions in the market.
A related problem is the lack of clarity in interpreting the rules, so for the future we need to define exactly what constitutes a "delay" or "extraordinary circumstance", for example.
I am aware that this is a complex and controversial area; it has already led to more than 13 pending cases at the European Court of Justice. Some other court rulings have already clarified the most important points but there is still a good way to go.
And we do need even more public awareness of rights and how to claim them through easily accessible complaint handling procedures and effective means of redress. Much has already improved thanks to the huge Europe-wide awareness campaign on passenger rights launched by the Commission last year.
Enhancing this public awareness is exactly what our future communication on passenger rights aims to do.
There are many areas and questions to consider as we look to the future, such as:
How should 'delay' and 'long delay' be defined?
What exactly is an 'extraordinary circumstance'?
What about the concept of unlimited liability for providing care when the travel disruption is clearly beyond the responsibility of an airline, such as during major natural disasters?
What happens if a transport operator goes bankrupt?
Should an airline be obliged to compensate passengers if air traffic controllers go on strike, or should the air traffic controllers compensate?
What about liability for lost luggage? Or delays caused by groundhandling operations?
We should now work towards consolidating the rules that we have today because, in essence, they work well and we need them. But we should also ensure they are consistently and fairly applied, that other modes of transport are properly integrated and the loopholes are removed.
Passenger rights are, and will remain, at the heart of our vision for the future of European transport. We have worked hard to set up this system, of which we can be rightfully proud.