The European Commission (the Commission) has provided an interpretative guideline (the Guidelines) in order to clarify the EU passenger rights and to mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19 on the transport sector.
The Commission indicates that the transport sector will be one of the most affected by the worldwide pandemic and the restrictive measures introduced in most of the member states.
Meanwhile, the Commission recall that the European law envisaged a full set of passenger rights, whether they travel by air, rail, bus and coach or ship.
The Guidelines are applicable only for the passenger`s rights, provided by the European legislation, and not to the national regulations of the state-members concerning this matter.
The Guidelines covers the rights of the EU passengers in the following modes of transport:
- air transport;
- rail transport;
- maritime transport;
- bus transport.
Right to choose between reimbursement and rerouting
Due to the unpredictability of the duration of the pandemic, the right to choose re-routing at the “earliest opportunity” (the earliest next date) may have an incidence on the carrier`s obligation to provide information to the passengers. Meanwhile, the “earliest opportunity” for re-routing may be considerable delayed for a long period. Thus, the Commission states that a reimbursement of the ticker price or a re-routing at a later stage “at the passenger`s convenience” might be preferable for the passenger.
Situations where passengers cannot travel or want to cancel a trip
The EU`s passenger rights regulations do not address situations where passengers cannot travel or want to cancel a trip on their own initiative.
Whether or not a passenger is entitles to reimbursement in such cases depends on the type of the ticker (reimbursable, possibility to rebook) as specified in the carrier`s terms and conditions.
In the current situation, most of the carriers prefer to offer to the passengers, who do not want to or are not authorized to travel, vouchers, which they can use for another trip with the same carrier within a timeframe established by the carrier.
If the trip has been canceled by the carrier and he has offered voucher to the passenger, this offer cannot affect the passenger`s right to opt for reimbursement instead.
Air passenger rights
Right to reimbursement or re-routing
According to the EU regulation, in the case of a flight cancellation by the airlines (no matter what the cause is), the passengers are entitled to:
- reimbursement (refund);
- re-routing at the earliest opportunity, or
- re-routing at a later date at the passenger’s convenience.
Regarding reimbursement, in cases where the passenger books the outbound flight and the return flight separately and the outbound flight is cancelled, the passenger is only entitled to reimbursement of the cancelled flight, i.e. here the outbound flight.
However, if the outbound flight and the return flight are part of the same booking, even if operated by different air carriers, passengers should be offered two options if the outbound flight is cancelled:
- to be reimbursed for the whole ticket (i.e. both flights) or
- to be re-routed on another flight for the outbound flight.
Right to care
In case of flight cancelation, the air carrier has to offer to the passenger:
- meals and refreshments in a reasonable relation to the waiting time;
- hotel accommodation if necessary, and transport to the place of accommodation.
Moreover, airports are to provide assistance to disabled passengers and passengers with reduced mobility.
When the passenger opts for reimbursement of the full cost of the ticket, the right to care ends. The same happens when the passenger chooses re-routing at a later date at the passenger’s convenience.
The air carrier is obliged to fulfil the obligation of care even when the cancellation of a flight is caused by extraordinary circumstances, that is to say circumstances that could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken.
Right to compensation
If the flight cancelation was made by the air carrier more than 14 days in advance or where the cancellation is caused by ‘extraordinary circumstances’, the passenger is not entitled to compensation.
In the Guidelines, the Commission indicates that the anti-epidemic measures introduced by a public authority (flights prohibition or ban on movement of people) represent extraordinary circumstances insofar as such measures are by their nature and origin not inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier and are outside his actual control.
An extraordinary circumstance also exists where the ban on the movement of people is not absolute but only concerns passengers who are not nationals or permanent residents of the state concerned.
In this regard, the Commission states that where no such person would take a given flight, the latter would remain empty if not Cancelled. Therefore, it may be legitimate for the air carrier not to wait until the last moment, but to cancel the flight in good time, even without being certain about the rights of the various passengers to travel at all. Тhe main purpose is for the carrier to have sufficient time to take appropriate organizational measures to, including in terms of care for passengers.
When the air carrier decides to cancel the flight in order to protect the health of the passengers, such cancellation should also be considered as “caused” by extraordinary circumstances.
Rail passenger rights
Right to be informed
Prior selling a ticket, railway undertakings and ticket vendors must provide passengers, upon request, with pre-journey information – including information on any activities likely to disrupt or delay services. Railway undertakings must also provide passengers with such information during the journey.
Right to reimbursement or continuation of the journey /re-routing
Where it can reasonably be expected that the delay in the arrival at the final destination will be more than 60 minutes, passengers are entitled to:
- reimbursement concerns the cost of the ticket for the part or parts of the journey not made and for the parts of the journey already made if the journey is no longer serving the purpose for which the passenger was planning it, together with (where relevant) a return service to the first point of departure;
- continuation or re-routing, under comparable transport conditions, to the final destination at the earliest opportunity or at a later date at the passenger’s convenience.
As regards continuation of the journey/ re-routing at the earliest opportunity (the earliest next date), in the Guidelines is envisaged that “the earliest opportunity” may under the circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak imply considerable delay. On the other hand, there is a high level of uncertainty when the carrier gives information to the passengers, as the carrier may also not be familiar with the next earliest date.
Therefore, when offering them the choice between the two possibilities, the carrier should inform the passenger about any delays and/or uncertainties.
Should a passenger choose nonetheless continuation of the journey or re-routing at the earliest opportunity, the carrier should be considered to have fulfilled its information obligation towards the passenger if it communicated on its own initiative, as soon as possible and in good time, the train available for continuation or rerouting.
Right to assistance
In case of a delay exceeding 60 minutes, the passengers have the right to receive:
- meals and refreshments within reasonable limits;
- accommodation where a stay of one or more nights becomes necessary where and when physically possible.
If the train is blocked on the track, the passengers have also the right of transport to the railway station or to the alternative departure point or to the final destination, where and when physically possible.
The Commission recall that the carrier must perform his obligation for care, even if the cancelation was caused by circumstance related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The carrier should not be exempted from the obligation to provide assistance even if this situation continues for a long period of time.
Right to compensation
Where the passenger has opted for for continuation of the journey or re-routing, he is also entitled to compensation.
For delays of 60 to 119 minutes the compensation amounts to 25% of the ticket price, whereas for delays of 120 minutes and more the compensation is 50% of the ticket price.
Unlike in other transport modes, the existence of extraordinary circumstances, if any, does not affect the right to compensation in cases of delays.
The passenger shall not have any right to compensation only if he is informed of a delay before he buys a ticket, or if a delay due to continuation on a different service or re-routing remains below 60 minutes.
Bus passenger rights
Right to be informed
Carriers and bodies that manage terminals must, within their respective areas of competence, provide passengers with adequate information throughout their travel.
Where feasible, this information shall be provided in accessible formats upon request.
The regulation is applicable in case of passengers travelling with regular services for non-specified categories of passengers where the boarding or the alighting point of the passengers is situated in the territory of a Member State and where the scheduled distance of the service is 250 km or more.
Right to continuation of the journey / re-routing or reimbursement
Where a carrier reasonably expects the departure of a regular service from a terminal to be cancelled or delayed for more than 120 minutes, passengers have the right to choose between:
- continuation or re-routing to the final destination, at no additional cost and under comparable conditions, as set out in the transport contract, at the earliest opportunity;
- reimbursement of the ticket price, and, where relevant, a return service by bus or coach free of charge to the first point of departure, as set out in the transport contract, at the earliest opportunity.
Like in other transport modes, with respect to the bus, it is also envisaged the re-routing at the earliest opportunity (the earliest next date) may under the circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak imply considerable delay. Тhere is a high level of uncertainty when the carrier gives information to the passengers, as he may also not be familiar with the next earliest date.
For the passenger to make their choice, they should be informed by the carrier about any delays and/or uncertainties as to the next date for which the re-routing was made.
The Commission recall that if a passenger choose nonetheless re-routing at the earliest opportunity, the carrier should be considered to have fulfilled its information obligation towards the passenger if it communicated on its own initiative, as soon as possible and in good time, the service available for continuation or rerouting.
Right to assistance
Where the departure of a long-distance service with a scheduled duration of more than 3 hours is cancelled or delayed for more than 90 minutes, passengers are entitled to:
- snacks, meals or refreshments in reasonable relation to the waiting time or delay, provided they are available on the bus or in the terminal, or can reasonably be supplied;
- a hotel room or other accommodation as well as assistance to arrange transport between the terminal and the place of accommodation in cases where a stay of 1 or more nights becomes necessary. For each passenger, the carrier may limit the total cost of accommodation, not including transport to and from the terminal and place of accommodation, to EUR 80 per night and for a maximum of 2 nights.
The carrier should fulfill these obligations even if the transport is delayed or canceled due to an exceptional circumstance.
Right to compensation
The passenger is entitled to compensation, which amounts to 50 % of the ticket price, only if the carrier fails to offer him the choice between reimbursement and rerouting.
Maritime and inland waterway passenger rights
Right to be informed
The carrier should provide passengers with information regarding any delays in the operation or cancellation of the service, as soon as possible and in any event not later than 30 minutes after the scheduled time of departure and of the estimated departure time and estimated arrival time as soon as that information is available.
Right to re-routing or reimbursement
Where a carrier reasonably expects a passenger service to be cancelled or delayed in departure from a port terminal for more than 90 minutes, the carrier must offer passengers a choice between two possibilities:
- re-routing to the final destination under comparable conditions, as set out in the transport contract, at the earliest opportunity and at no additional cost or
- reimbursement of the ticket price and, where relevant, a return service free of charge to the first point of departure, as set out in the transport contract, at the earliest opportunity.
Regarding this transport mode, the uncertainty as to the first possible date for the re-routing should be borne in mind too.
Right to assistance
Where a carrier reasonably expects the departure of a passenger service or a cruise to be cancelled or delayed for more than 90 minutes beyond its scheduled time of departure, passengers departing from port terminals shall be offered free of charge snacks, meals or refreshments in reasonable relation to the waiting time, provided they are available or can reasonably be supplied.
In the case of a cancellation or a delay in departure where a stay of one or more nights or a stay additional to that intended by the passenger becomes necessary, where and when physically possible, the carrier shall offer passengers departing from port terminals, free of charge, adequate accommodation on board, or ashore, and transport to and from the port terminal and place of accommodation.
For each passenger, the carrier may limit the total cost of accommodation ashore, not including transport to and from the port terminal and place of accommodation, to EUR 80 per night, for a maximum of three nights.
Right to compensation
Without losing the right to transport, passengers may request compensation from the carrier if they are facing a delay in arrival at the final destination as set out in the transport contract.
The minimum level of compensation shall be 25 % of the ticket price for a delay of at least:
- 1 hour in the case of a scheduled journey of up to 4 hours;
- 2 hours in the case of a scheduled journey of more than 4 hours, but not exceeding 8 hours;
- 3 hours in the case of a scheduled journey of more than 8 hours, but not exceeding 24 hours; or
- 6 hours in the case of a scheduled journey of more than 24 hours.
If the delay exceeds double the time set out above, the compensation shall be 50 % of the ticket price.
The compensation is not due if the carrier proves that the cancellation or delay is caused by extraordinary circumstances hindering the performance of the passenger service which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken.
The Commission states that the restrictive measures taken by the public authorities with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic constitute such an exceptional circumstance.
Thus, when the delay or cancellation is due to circumstances related to the declared World Pandemic, the carrier owes no compensation to the passengers.
The carrier has no such obligation also in case of delay or cancelation in order to protect the health of the passengers.