The European Union's airline policy chief told member states on Wednesday they had six months to improve enforcement of EU passenger rights or face legal action.
An EU evaluation of two-year-old rules meant to protect air passengers concluded that their complaints about delayed flights, overbooking or cancellations are either unanswered or are poorly handled in many European countries.
The report did not recommend new rights for consumers, but suggests governments and national enforcement authorities must do more to get airlines to respond to complaints.
Several of the 27 EU countries still do not have offices to handle complaints in a consistent and efficient way, EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot said.
"Although there is no doubt that air passengers enjoy better protection today, we must make sure that airlines and member states fully comply with their obligations," Barrot said. He added he will give EU governments "six months to make the air passengers regulation work," or look to start legal action.
It said national enforcement authorities received 18,288 complaints between February 2005 and September 2006 and that only 14 percent had been successfully resolved.
British passengers filed the most complaints at airports - 6,090 between 2005 and 2006. In France, 2,500 were filed, and in Germany, 1,589.
Britain has already been given legal notice from the EU over refusing to accept complaints from foreign airline passengers.
The report said the regulation was imprecise in some areas, notably on defining the difference between a delayed flight and a canceled flight - a distinction that could cost airlines more compensation.
The EU fears that airlines could be using the vague definitions to get out of paying passengers. "Airlines may be reclassifying cancellations as long delays ... to avoid claims for compensation payments," the report said.
EU officials said Barrot would talk with national authorities responsible for handling complaints to try to make the definition more precise.
The EU report cited statistics from Eurocontrol, Europe's air navigation organization, which said that 55 percent of delays were caused by airlines, 16 percent due to airports and only 9 percent due to weather.
Under the EU's passenger rights law, airlines must pay passengers up to euro600 (US$802) if they are bumped off a flight, double the previous limit. Similar compensation is required if an airline is held responsible for canceling a flight. Refunds for round-trip flights must be offered if the journey is no longer necessary, for example if a business meeting is missed.
The EU report acknowledged that passengers continue to be unaware of their rights.
Airlines have to put up signs at check-in and provide leaflets for passengers facing a delay of at least two hours, the report said. "In many airports, these signs are not available."
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The EU transport commissioner is looking into ways of improving the implementation of EU passenger rights as he gets "a lot of mail" coming from upset travelers.
The involuntary bumping rate last year was 1.01 in every 10,000 passengers -- that's a 15 percent increase from the 0.88 rate in 2005.
Complaints increased 17 percent last year over 2004 and the rate of mishandled baggage jumped from 4.83 per 1,000 passengers to 6.06 in 2005.