Airline passengers whose flights are cancelled as a result of the coronavirus outbreak will be able to choose between having the cost of their ticket reimbursed or rebooking on to a later flight under new European Union guidelines, a move that has prompted “dismay” at IATA.

The airline trade group had requested the option for carriers to offer rebooking or vouchers instead of cash refunds for flights cancelled because of the pandemic.

IATA had also asked the European Commission to recognise that no compensation should be due in the event of Covid-19-related cancellations, and to limit the “extensive obligations” for airlines to provide care and assistance to affected passengers.

The Commission announced on 18 March a series of guidelines on how to consistently apply its EU261 passenger rights legislation across the bloc during the coronavirus crisis.

In addition to affording passengers the right to choose between reimbursement and rebooking, the new guidelines classify the cancellation of a flight due to a country closing its borders to stem the spread of the virus as an “extraordinary circumstance”, under which airlines are exempt from providing compensation.

While IATA has welcomed this “limited help”, it describes the Commission’s response to airlines’ responsibility to provide care and assistance to affected passengers as “inadequate”. It argues that by not providing flexibility on this front, airlines are “potentially responsible for unlimited care to passengers who have been stranded as a result of government decisions to close borders”.

The Commission states that it published the guidelines “to ensure EU passenger rights are applied in a coherent manner” across the bloc, and to reassure the travelling public that their rights will be protected.

“In light of the mass cancellations and delays passengers and transport operators face due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Commission wants to provide legal certainty on how to apply EU passenger rights,” says transport commissioner Adina Valean.

“In case of cancellations, the transport provider must reimburse or re-route the passengers. If passengers themselves decide to cancel their journeys, reimbursement of the ticket depends on its type, and companies may offer vouchers for subsequent use.”

IATA’s regional vice-president for Europe, Rafael Schvartzman, has accused the Commission of underestimating the crisis facing airlines.

“Faced with a cash flow catastrophe, many airlines can only offer vouchers in lieu of immediate cash refunds for cancelled flights,” argues Schvartzman. “The Commission needs to understand that fiddling at the edges will not keep airlines in any shape to get the economy moving again when the health crisis abates.

“This is not a short-term issue – air connectivity will not be back to normal for many months. And for some airlines, things will never be the same again.