EU Court Hammers Out Law for Ruffled Travelers

     (CN) - Europe's highest court enhanced protections for travelers with rail and air companies, and it established a statute of limitations for suing air carriers.
     In one opinion, the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice ordered both railways and track management to start sharing real-time information regarding delays, cancelations and other data that passengers need to plan their journeys.
     The case stems from attempts made by Austrian railway Westbahn to obtain train position data on the Vienna-Salzburg line from the infrastructure manager OBB-Infrastruktur. Resistant to the idea, OBB-Infrastruktur had said it would share such information only if Westbahn negotiated an agreement with the other railways using OBB tracks.
     But the court found Thursday that EU law - which provides an extensive battery of protections and accommodations for travelers - mandates that rail passengers receive information about delays and transfer issues throughout their journeys.
     The obligations of railways involve more than information on their own lines, it said.
     "A restrictive interpretation of the information to which passengers must have access would hinder transfers by them, and compromise the objective thus pursued, by encouraging passengers to give preference to large railway undertakings which would be in a position to provide them in real time with information relating to all stages of their journey," according to the ruling.
     Europe's competition rules also require infrastructure management to share information with all railway operators, the court said.
     "To ensure fair competition on the passenger rail transport market, it must be ensured that all railway undertakings are in a position to provide passengers with a comparable quality of service," the ruling states.
     "If a railway undertaking could provide information only on its own connecting services, an undertaking with a larger network would be able to provide its passengers with more complete information than could be provided by an undertaking operating a limited number of lines, which would run counter both to the objective of greater integration of the railway sector ... and to the obligation of providing passengers with information," it added. "Railway undertakings must therefore, for the purposes of the exercise of the right of access to railway infrastructure, be given information by the infrastructure manager in real time relating to the main connecting services operated by other railway undertakings."
     In another opinion Thursday, the court ordered air carriers to compensate passengers for lost luggage, regardless of who checked the bags at the airport.
     Iberia Airlines had denied claims filed after it lost two suitcases belonging to a family of four, saying that passengers can apply for compensation only if they used luggage claim tags.
     The court found, however, that claim tags serve only to identify baggage and do not shield airlines from compensating inconvenienced passengers.
     "The relevant provisions of the Montreal Convention must be interpreted as meaning that an air carrier must be considered liable to pay a passenger compensation to the extent that that passenger has sustained damage in the form of the loss of items belonging to him, where those items were placed in baggage checked in in (sic) the name of another passenger on the same flight and that baggage was lost," the ruling states. "Consequently, not only a passenger who has checked in his own baggage in person, but also a passenger whose items were placed in the baggage checked in by another passenger on the same flight, is granted an individual right to compensation by the Montreal Convention where those items are lost."
     The Montreal Convention recognizes "the importance of ensuring protection of the interests of consumers in international carriage by air and the need for equitable compensation based on the principle of restitution," according to the court.
     Affected passengers must still prove ownership of the lost items, it added.
     In its third ruling Thursday on travel complaints, the court told passengers that they cannot wait too long to file claims against air carriers.
     The ruling describes the inconvenience experienced by Cuadrench More when KLM canceled a flight he had booked from Shanghai to Barcelona. More had to travel the following day, Dec. 21, 2005, on another carrier via Munich.
     After waiting more than three years to sue, More claimed that KLM owed him $3,600 for his inconvenience. KLM objected, claiming that both the Montreal and Warsaw conventions provide for a two-year statute of limitations on bringing actions against carriers for travel troubles.
     A Spanish court riginally awarded Moré just $720 for his troubles. Asked to weigh in, the EU high court said that member states, not international conventions, govern statute of limitations.
     "The sole purpose of [the EU law] was to substitute, as regards air transport between the member states, certain provisions affording greater protection to passengers involved in air accidents than the provisions laid down by the Warsaw Convention, without, however, precluding the application of the remaining provisions, which included, in particular, the procedural rules for bringing an action for damages laid down in [the convention]," the decision states.
     "By contrast, [the law] establishes a system to redress, in a standardized and immediate manner, the damage that is constituted by the inconvenience that delay and cancellations to flights cause, which operates at an earlier stage than the Montreal Convention and, consequently, is independent of the system stemming from that convention," the court concluded.