IN theory the pain of those long hours of waiting at airports for delayed flights should be alleviated somewhat from the middle of next month when a new European Union deal on compensation comes into force. The qualification, “in theory”, is necessary because it is not certain clear that all airlines, in particular the low-cost operators, will observe the new regulations. There is no doubt that their cost, if strictly adhered to, will be high. For instance, the cancellation of a flight with 180 booked passengers could cost the airline more than 100'000 pounds, depending on the destination. An individual passenger inconvenienced in this way might be entitled to as much as 400 pounds and a similar amount might be due for loss of a flight because of overbooking.

Most people will be affected by the simple delays caused by weather, maintenance or other operational factors. In these cases the compensation comes into force after two hours for short-haul flights and after four hours for long-distance routes; the airlines will be liable for free meals or refreshments, two free phone calls and hotel accommodation if the delay is prolonged. Some airlines already accept these responsibilites automatically but some do not and in such cases passengers will have to decide whether to put up with it or institute the complaints procedure through the Air Transport Users Council. The principle is important and worth establishing; if an airline refuses appropriate compensation each upheld complaint could result in it being fined up to five thousand pounds. Several airlines are thought likely to appeal against the regulations to the European Court of Justice. But in theory (again) these new passenger rights are due to come into force on February 17.