Airlines who cancel flights will have to book passengers on rival carriers if they cannot offer one of their own within 12 hours, under a new package of EU consumer measures to be unveiled today.
The plans for sweeping changes to passengers’ rights represent the biggest reform to the EU aviation rules since they were introduced eight years ago.
Subject to the approval of member states and the European Parliament, the new laws are due to come into force in early 2015.
Airlines have frequently been accused of trying to dodge their obligations, enshrined in a regulation known as EU261, forcing passengers to drag them through the courts to get the compensation to which they are entitled.
Carriers in turn have campaigned for changes especially after facing a bill of more than €1 billion following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in April 2010.
They had to pick up the cost of looking after for millions of passengers who were stranded when flights across Europe were grounded for nearly a week.
Under the changes, airlines will have to pay for a maximum of three nights hotel accommodation.
The reforms, designed to clarify the law, will tackle some of the more controversial practices used by airlines.
For example carriers will be banned from charging passengers a fee to correct a misspelling of their name.
Ryanair, for example, demands up to £160 (€184) for a passenger to correct a flight booking at the airport and easyJet £40 (€46).
Airlines will also be obliged to give passengers information about why their flight was cancelled within 30 minutes of its scheduled departure.
They will also have to acknowledge complaints within a week and respond within two months.
Passenger rights will also be strengthened when an aircraft is stuck on the tarmac for more than an hour.
Airlines will be obliged to provide water, turn on the air-conditioning or heating and make the lavatories available to passengers.
The new rules will also clarify what are “exceptional circumstances” under which airlines will not be obliged to pay compensation.
Carriers will not be able to use mechanical problems as a reason to deny passengers payments of up to €600 depending on the length of the flight.
However airlines will no longer have to pay compensation for delays or cancellations caused by severe weather or strikes, although their obligation to provide care – such as hotel accommodation for stranded passengers – will remain.
Other concessions will see airlines not having to pay compensation until a flight is delayed by at least five hours – two hours more than at present.
Under the current system, the right to compensation after only three hours made it more worthwhile for the airline to simply cancel the flight and save the cost of paying crew overtime, fuel and airport charges.
By giving carriers an additional two hours to find an alternative aircraft or fix the mechanical problem, the EU believes that passengers will benefit from fewer cancellations.
Underpinning the changes is the belief that simplifying and clarifying the rules will bring an end to prolonged litigation with airlines trying to challenge the provisions of ambiguous EU rules in the courts.
While airlines will see a limit placed on their potential liability should there be a repeat of the ash crisis, those found to be involved of sharp practice run the risk of stricter enforcement action.
“It is very important that passenger rights do not just exist on paper,” said Siim Kallas, the vice president of the EU Commission. “We all need to be able to rely on them when it matters most – when things go wrong.
“We know that the real priority for stranded passengers is to just get home.”
David Millward Telegraph.co.uk