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New EU Air Passenger Rights Go Into Effect

New European Union laws granting airline passengers hefty compensation for flight cancellations or excessive delays went into force on Thursday, and most travelers are ecstatic at the idea. The move is being criticized by some of the continent's low-cost carriers.

Every airline passenger dreads finding out that his (or her) flight has been canceled or delayed.

The European Commission, the EU executive body, estimates a quarter of a million passengers are bumped off flights every year due to overbooking. It says that nearly half of all flight cancellations are caused by airline incompetence.

But that is supposed to change with the introduction of the new EU bill of passenger rights that affects any flight departing from or arriving at an EU airport from an airline registered in the 25-nation bloc.

Leaflets explaining the new compensation rules say if a passenger is denied boarding because of overbooking, he (or she) must be paid by the airline. Compensation will vary from $325 for a short-haul flight to nearly $800 for a long-haul flight, regardless of the ticket price.

If a flight is canceled or subject to a long delay, the airline must also offer stranded passengers a ticket refund or a free flight and, in some cases, it will have to provide meals and refreshments as well as hotel accommodation.

Belgian chemical company executive Frank Vandercaye is one traveler who thinks the new passenger bill of rights is good news.

"Well, I think it is very good news for the consumer," he said. "Now, at least, we have some rights, and I hope airlines will take this into account and not overbook all the time."

Laura Sillitoe, a frequent traveler between Brussels and her native Britain, also welcomes the compensation scheme but wonders how it will affect the airlines.

"What is the effect going to be on the companies? Because I know that loads of them are struggling already to survive," she noted.

European airlines are not exactly happy about the new rules. They say most delays and cancellations are caused by weather conditions and that they should not be penalized under such circumstances.

Low-cost carriers, whose proliferation during the past few years has led to a huge upsurge in intra-European air travel, argue that the level of compensation should remain proportionate to the cost of the ticket, which is sometimes as low as $10-$15.

An official with the Belgian budget airline Virgin Express, Yves Panneels, does not believe the new rules will lead airlines to raise their fares.

"I do not think so, because the airlines who are reliable, the airlines who have a punctual operation, they will not have to pay the compensation, and they can keep the price low," he said. "So, it is not a matter of whether you are a low-fare airline or a traditional airline. It will be a matter of whether you are a reliable airline or an airline that is not punctual."

Though some airlines are threatening to challenge the new rules in court, most indicate they will comply with them.

The European Commission is planning to introduce similar compensation schemes for railway and ferry passengers.