One thing is certain: the airlines are the black sheep among German transport companies. 78 percent of the cases processed by the arbitration board for public transport (SÖP) in the first half of 2022 can be traced back to disputes between airlines and passengers. For comparison: Only 17 percent of the cases involve annoyances in rail traffic. The main reason for the complaints, according to the SÖP: the reimbursement of ticket costs paid in advance for canceled trips or trips that were not taken.
In this respect, it is no wonder that in view of the thousands of canceled flight connections this summer alone and the associated disputes, the issue is also being addressed in politics. At the forefront is the state government of Lower Saxony, which is in the middle of the state election campaign.
On Tuesday, at the instigation of her economics minister and candidate for prime minister of the CDU, Bernd Althusmann, she decided on a Federal Council initiative. This is intended to ensure that airline tickets no longer have to be paid for in advance in the future, but “at the earliest when the flight is dispatched” – i.e. only when it is reasonably certain that the booked aircraft will actually take off.
The previous practice, the country justifies its initiative, puts passengers at a disadvantage, “since flight cancellations are almost always at the expense of the traveler”. “With our Federal Council initiative, we are committed to ensuring that advance payment for flight tickets will soon be a thing of the past. With this, we want to significantly improve consumer protection for travellers," says Althusmann.
It's not as if the federal government or the other state governments were just waiting for this initiative from Hanover. For the time being, countries such as North Rhine-Westphalia, which is governed by black and green, or Thuringia, which is governed by red-red-green, did not want to comment at all on the subject. Baden-Württemberg signaled skepticism when asked by WELT.
And the FDP-led Federal Ministry of Transport also shows a certain distance. A ministry spokesman reports dutifully that his house will "of course examine the proposal from Lower Saxony thoroughly".
In principle, however, the federal government is more in favor of EU-wide solutions, "since in view of the practice of the international air traffic market, the standard of which also includes the advance payment of booked flight tickets, national regulations can lead to circumvention and in this respect harbor the risk of negative competitive and economic effects". . The FDP parliamentary group made a similar statement, but wanted to “carefully examine” the application from Lower Saxony.
On the other side of the traffic light coalition geography, with the Greens, the Lower Saxony are more popular. Since airlines often ignore their obligations in the event of flight cancellations, said tourism policy group spokesman Stefan Schmidt, the proposal will be seriously considered.
"If the rules are not observed, a leap of faith in the form of payment in advance is not justified." The SPD parliamentary group did not want to commit itself to a line. "We do not want to anticipate the parliamentary procedure or the voting within the coalition at this point in time," said Nadine Heselhaus, rapporteur for consumer protection.
The federal state of Hesse and the Green-led Federal Ministry for Consumer Protection are also looking benevolently towards Hanover. According to a ministry spokeswoman, the increase in complaints to the passenger transport arbitration board could indicate that repayment claims are currently not running smoothly. If this development continues, they want to review the prepayment practice. Support for the end of this principle is also signaled by the AfD and Left parliamentary groups.
Left parliamentary group leader Amira Mohamed Ali thinks it is "perfectly right that the obligation to pay in advance for air travel is abolished". However, passengers should still be given the opportunity to continue paying in advance if they wish. “After all, not everyone wants to have to worry about paying immediately when they start their journey. I therefore think that the complete abolition of prepayment as a payment option for air travel is wrong," says Mohamed Ali.
The AfD, according to their tourism policy group spokesman Sebastian Münzenmaier, has already drawn up an application in which they are calling for the Bundestag to abolish the prepayment principle. From his point of view, the initiative from Lower Saxony points “in the right direction”.
The Union faction expressed reservations. Your transport policy spokesman Thomas Bareiß (CDU) welcomed the initiative of the Lower Saxony state government "in principle", but warned: Such a change must not lead to a competitive disadvantage for German airlines. "Something like that has to be coordinated at European level." He therefore warns against "rush shots".
Both Lufthansa and the Federal Association of the German Aviation Industry (BDL) reject the new regulation. Prepayment, according to association spokeswoman Julia Fohmann, is “a proven practice in global air traffic”. It ensures planning security for the airlines, enables favorable early booking rates, ensures better utilization of the flights and is therefore also “good for the climate”.
Stand in line again before you go on vacation. This is what it looks like at some airports in Germany. Lufthansa is now canceling another 2,000 flights. But with the right preparation, travelers can ensure a more relaxed start to their holidays themselves.
Source: WELT/ Marcus Tychsen
According to a government spokeswoman, Lower Saxony wants to meet concerns that passengers who book a flight without prepayment but then cancel it should pay cancellation fees. Currently, airline tickets must be paid for in full immediately upon booking. A practice that has also been criticized by the Federation of Consumer Organizations, because since the beginning of the corona pandemic, passengers have often had to bear their own costs in the event of flight cancellations or airline bankruptcies.
An observation that the SÖP association - which is supported by around 400 transport and travel companies and is intended to settle disputes between companies and customers out of court - does not share. SÖP Managing Director Sabine Cofalla says:
“In our experience, the airlines are usually cooperative in the arbitration process when handling flight disruptions. Occasionally, however, the repayment of refundable flight tickets is delayed, for example due to current staff shortages.” Lower Saxony's application is to be submitted to the Bundesrat in September.
"Kick-off Politics" is WELT's daily news podcast. The most important topic analyzed by WELT editors and the dates of the day. Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, among others, or directly via RSS feed.