UPDATE 1-EU air passenger rights not protected during pandemic, auditors say

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BRUSSELS, June 29 (Reuters) - European airline passenger rights, which include carriers’ legal obligation to pay refunds for cancelled flights, have not been safeguarded during the COVID-19 pandemic, an EU report released on Tuesday said.

The European Court of Auditors (ECA) found that in virtually all cases airlines were able to sidestep rules requiring a cash refund for cancelled flights and offer customers vouchers for future journeys instead.

The ECA, which looks after the interests of taxpayers in the 27-member European Union but does not have legal powers, said travel restrictions led to 7,000 air routes being closed in the European airport network after the pandemic began last year.

Flight cancellations affected tens of millions of passengers across the bloc between March 2020 and March 2021, the ECA said.

EU law grants consumers immediate cash refunds for cancelled flights, plus compensation for those scrapped with less than two weeks’ notice or for delays of over three hours.

But the auditors found that 15 EU member states adopted exceptional measures to release airlines and package-tour operators from their legal obligation for refunds.

“While every effort has been made to support airlines and package-tour operators, far too little has been done to secure the rights of millions of people in the EU,” said Annemie Turtelboom, the ECA member responsible for the report.

European airlines have called for passenger compensation rights to be weakened because, with so many flights cancelled due to the pandemic, the industry is struggling to reimburse billions of euros in fares.

The EU auditors said member states did not explicitly make the state aid that airlines and tour operators received to weather the crisis conditional on passenger reimbursements, even though the EU’s executive said they could do so.

The auditors said that in total EU governments paid out almost 35 billion euros ($41.66 billion) between March 2020 and April 2021 to protect airlines from bankruptcy, with Air France and KLM together receiving more than billion euros and Lufthansa over 6 billion euros.

$1 = 0.8401 euros Reporting by Marine Strauss. Editing by Jane Merriman