European Airlines Must Pay Stranded Passengers

The European Commission says "maximum pressure" will be put on European airlines to reimburse travelers delayed by the volcanic ash disruption. The EU has strict rules requiring passengers be compensated for delayed air travel. Some budget airlines complain that it is unfair to ask them to pay the cost of meals and hotel rooms that far outweigh the original fare.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some rules work to the benefit of passengers affected by volcanic ash from Iceland that spread across Europe. European Union regulators say airlines must reimburse travelers who were delayed. But many airlines face hotel and meal bills that are much more than the original fares, so they're not too happy about this. They can try to get government compensation.

Vicki Barker has more from London.

VICKI BARKER: European commissioners say airlines can seek bailouts from their national governments, just this once. Siim Kallas is Europes Transport Commissioner.

Mr. SIIM KALLAS (Vice President Transport, EU): Exceptional circumstances of recent days may justify support measures to offset losses incurred.

BARKER: At last count, those exceptional circumstances have cost the aviation industry $3.3 billion in lost revenues. And its still not clear just how many of the roughly 10 million passengers affected, will prove illegible for compensation under EU law. However many that proves to be will be too many for the budget airlines.

Michael OLeary runs Ryanair, the Irish carrier that famously charges extra for wheelchairs and is seriously considering onboard pay toilets.

Mr. MICHAEL OLEARY (CEO, Ryanair): We have this unfair legislation that applies to airlines, where it says, regardless of what the ticket price, youve got to pay unlimited refunds.

Mr. OLIVER AUST (Corporate Affairs Manager, EasyJet): Well, we do accept it in the legislation, but the legislation isn't fit for purpose.

BARKER: Oliver Aust is a spokesman for Ryanairs rival, EasyJet. He says the law was intended to protect passengers from such airline-induced delays as overbooked flights.

Mr. AUST: It was never meant to make airlines be unsure of last resort in the case of natural disaster.

BARKER: Unfortunately for the airlines, that angle wasnt written into the law. In fact, the way its worded, legal expert Damian Chalmers says, it can arguably apply to U.S. airlines too.

Professor DAMIAN CHALMERS (Legal expert): For example, American Airlines, who have a plane lets say leaving from Heathrow or Frankfurt or whatever, they would have to apply compensation in those circumstances.

BARKER: The issues made some of aviations bitterest rivals allies in a war on two fronts: to get the law rewritten, and to pass some of their financial pain along to governments. But many governments are already warning that cupboard is almost bare.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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