The European Commission has published new guidelines to ensure passenger rights are “applied in a coherent manner” across the European Union during the coronavirus crisis.

With national governments bringing in different measures such as travel restrictions and border controls, the purpose of the guidelines is “to reassure passengers that their rights are protected,” a statement dated on March 18 accompanying the guidelines explained.

“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,” said Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean.

If passengers face the cancellation of a journey, they should be able to choose between reimbursement of the ticket price or re-routing to reach their final destination at a later stage, the statement said.

But the current circumstances are “extraordinary”, it added, with the consequence that certain rights, such as compensation in case of a flight cancellation less than two weeks from departure date, may not be invoked.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airlines for Europe (A4E) reacted with dismay to the new guidelines, branding them in a joint statement “disappointing and unhelpful, falling far short of the simple and temporary alleviation airlines had requested.”

They had been seeking recognition that no compensation is due in the event of cancellations due to Covid-19; limitations on the “extensive obligations” to provide care and assistance, and flexibility to allow carriers to offer rebooking or vouchers in place of refunds.

They acknowledged that the guidelines recognise that cancellations caused by externally imposed measures - such as flight bans - or because of very low demand are to be considered an extraordinary circumstance, meaning that in most current cases compensation would not apply.

But no flexibility was offered on the limitation of obligations during a period of crisis for the industry, they argued, neither on limitations to providing care and assistance nor on flexibility with refunds or vouchers.

“This means airlines are potentially responsible for unlimited care to passengers who have been stranded as a result of government decisions to close borders,” the two trade bodies said.

“The Commission appears to considerably underestimate the crisis afflicting airlines in Europe. Faced with a cashflow catastrophe, many airlines can only offer vouchers in lieu of immediate cash refunds for cancelled flights. The Commission must accept that this solution - which many people would regard as reasonable in the current extraordinary circumstances - should be facilitated,” said Rafael Schvartzman, IATA’s regional vice president for Europe.