Airlines will be banned from a range of practices in European skies that include charging passengers a fee to correct a mis-spelling of their name and leaving them sitting on the tarmac for hours without access to a toilet or drinking water. The measures are part of a raft of changes unveiled by the European commission aimed at removing “grey areas” in airline passenger rights while flying within the EU.

Passengers who face delays of more than 12 hours will have to be rerouted via a rival carrier if their airline cannot put them on another of its own flights. Currently, airlines often insist passengers are rerouted on one of their own flights, even if that takes days, or on flights operated by one of its partners.

The rules will also clarify what are known as “extraordinary circumstances” for compensation. At present, airlines often argue mechanical faults are extraordinary circumstances that exonerate them from blame. The updated rules say that only natural disasters and air traffic control strikes can be defined as extraordinary, but technical problems identified during routine aircraft maintenance cannot.

The proposals are set to become law in 2015 if approved by member states and the European parliament, and have been described as the biggest shake up of air passenger rights since EU aviation rules were introduced eight years ago.

“It is very important that passenger rights do not just exist on paper,” said vice president of the European commission Siim Kallas, announcing the measures. “We know the real priority for stranded passengers is just to get home. So our focus is on information, care and effective rerouting. The aim is to get passengers where they want to be as quickly as possible while giving the airlines the time they need to sort problems out.”

Of particular significance, according to Steven Truxal, an expert in aviation law at City University, London, is that under the new rules a passenger may not be denied boarding on the return flight of their ticket on the grounds that he or she did not take the outbound part of the return ticket.

“That is a big, big change as it affects airline’s abilities to manage their yields, as they sell discounted return tickets on the basis that people are returning on their flights,” he said.

New rights with regard to mis-handled baggage and transparency requirements for cabin and checked luggage will also come into force, as will rights in relation to long delays and runway delays.

If a plane is boarded and sits on the runway for more than five hours, passengers now have the right to demand to be let off. If the delay is more than an hour the airline must provide air conditioning, use of toilets and water.

The changes will be welcomed by thousands of air passengers who have struggled to get compensation from their airline or been hit by hefty fees to change a booking. Ryanair, for example, demands up to £160 for a passenger to correct a flight booking at the airport, while easyJet charges £40.

According to the European Consumer Centre, the number of complaints about airlines increased across Europe by 96% between 2006 and 2010. The number was boosted significantly following the disruption to flights that followed the Icelandic volcanic eruption in April 2010. Many of these complaints were lodged either because the airlines did not respond themselves or denied the passenger’s claim, in some instances stating that the legislation on air passenger rights did not apply.

“When flights are cancelled or lengthily delayed, passengers are often left in limbo and without the support they should be entitled to,” said Monique Goyens, director general of the European Consumer Organisation. “Rights which exist on paper but left unrealised mean passengers are doubly stranded. So we hope this prompts a much-needed upsurge in airlines’ respect for passenger rights.”

Goyens added: “After all, enforcement of the law is perhaps the biggest issue here, and these new rules should provide greater clarity and more powers for national authorities to tackle some of the worst problems.”

However, not all the changes favour the passenger. Airlines have successfully argued they should not be liable for unlimited hotel bills for delayed customers. Under the new measures, airlines will have to pay for a maximum of three nights’ hotel accommodation. Exceptions will be made for passengers with reduced mobility, unaccompanied children, or pregnant women.

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