The EU is now the first, and only, region in the world whose passengers enjoy comprehensive and integrated basic rights that apply across all forms of transport. New rights entered into force in March 2013 for passengers travelling by bus and coach – around 70 million passengers use this type of travel in the EU every year.
Europe's success in securing and upholding these rights for passengers is one of the resounding achievements of EU transport policy. The priority is to get travellers to where they want to go – and back home again. It is not just about compensation, neither is it a punishment for business: in fact, passenger rights should encourage business to follow that same priority and objective.
Work started on establishing passenger rights in the early 1990s after the huge problems that arose when European air transport was liberalised. Increased competition between airlines led to more over-booking, which meant that many passengers were grounded despite having paid for a valid ticket.
For cases like these, EU-wide rules for compensation were introduced. Thankfully, this practice has now been consigned to history.
Since then, we have worked to strengthen passenger rights, starting with aviation and then expanding elsewhere alongside a European Commission commitment to set up comprehensive passenger rights across all means of transport.
Now, when passengers are delayed – however they are travelling - they no longer have to puzzle out for themselves what has gone wrong. They have a right to fast, accurate and easily accessible information. And they know they can demand it from their transport company.
These rights, and others, are backed up Europe-wide. They set out criteria and conditions for possible compensation for delays, re-routing or ticket reimbursement, assistance – including meals, and accommodation if necessary.
In the last few years, our passenger rights laws have been tested to a degree that nobody could have foreseen. This is particularly the case in aviation, with 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.
Earlier this year, the Commission proposed some important revisions to air passenger rights. While the rules we have today are generally good– after all, they survived the Icelandic volcano - we have learned many lessons since they came into force in 2005.
EU passenger rights are adapted to each means of transport. There are some differences that relate, for example, to exemptions or the amount and basis of compensation. But in essence, the rights that apply to all types of transport are comparable. They are based on three key principles: non-discrimination; accurate, timely and accessible information; immediate and proportionate assistance.
Passengers with disabilities or who are restricted in mobility - for example, if they are old or travelling with infants - qualify for special attention, because one objective of EU passenger rights policy is to allow them to have the same possibilities to travel as other citizens. So their reservations cannot be denied, nor can transport refused to them unless this is required for safety reasons.
Of course, none of this works if the rules are not applied or enforced correctly. This is something that the European Commission takes very seriously. If this is not done effectively, transport operators have no economic incentive to comply
Passenger rights are, and will remain, at the heart of European transport. But while the rules are now in place, passengers also need to be aware of their rights so they can make use of them. Research shows us that two-thirds of European passengers are not aware of their rights when they buy a ticket. Nearly 60% of air passengers do not know their rights when they board a plane.
This is why Commission has launched an EU-wide campaign running to mid-2015 that will inform the many thousands of travellers and holidaymakers about their rights, and how to claim them if they need to. There is a mobile app "Your Passenger Rights" that passengers can download to explain their rights and give information on whom to contact in order to complain.
More and better information about passenger’s rights, and better compliance with the rules, will boost fair competition and improve the image of Europe’s transport industry. We need this to raise citizens' confidence in passenger transport and make travelling in Europe a fairer and more enjoyable experience.