By Simon Thomson
Airlines are being accused of "cheating" passengers by using a loophole to avoid paying compensation when flights are cancelled.
Airlines should give food and drink vouchers to delayed passengers
Labour MEP Brian Simpson says airlines are wrongly classifying technical failures as "unforeseen circumstances" to get round the law.
He adds they are also failing to provide refreshments and accommodation to passengers suffering lengthy delays.
Industry representatives said the airlines do adhere to the rules.
But Mr Simpson wants to see the law tightened.
"They're failing to pass on what people are entitled to, because of the cost, and that's why I believe airlines are cheating passengers," he said.
Since 2005, under European law, airlines must provide passengers with refreshments, and in some cases hotel accommodation, when their plane is delayed by more than two hours.
Travellers whose flights are cancelled altogether are entitled to compensation. Depending on the flight's duration that could be between 250 euros (£175) and 600 euros (£400).
But airlines do not have to pay out if the cancellation was due to unforeseen circumstances or so-called "force majeure".
Mr Simpson, who is a transport spokesman in the European Parliament, said: "That means bad weather, fire and air traffic control strikes, but airlines are blaming cancellations on technical problems with an aircraft and claiming it was unforeseen circumstances.
"So the airlines are using it as a loophole."
Sunil Sahadevan paid almost £500 for a charter flight from Liverpool John Lennon Airport to Athens in May for the Champions League final, but after a delay of five hours it was cancelled because of a technical fault with the aircraft.
Passengers were refunded the cost of their tickets, but the airline, Jet Time, refused to pay compensation because the fault could be classified as an "unexpected flight safety shortcoming" - or unforeseen circumstance.
Mr Sahadevan said: "Their argument has loads of holes in it.
"If you don't look after and maintain your car, and it breaks down on you one day and you can't get to work, you can't ring up and say it's unforeseen circumstances."
David Sanders, a lead officer in civil law with the Trading Standards Institute, agreed: "Force majeure would not cover situations like that.
"It means those unforeseen terrible events over which you've no control.
"If a plane is grounded for many hours because they have to change an engine or something like that, I wouldn't think it was at all reasonable for an airline not to pay out for your cancelled flight."
Nothing to eat
Mr Simpson also says airlines are failing to care for passengers properly when flights are delayed.
"I've had people with young children being delayed for over three hours at Alicante airport en route to Manchester without any refreshments offered, and no reason for the delay," he said.
"And the most severe case was a flight from Kos in Greece to Cardiff which was delayed for 17 hours.
"Although refreshment vouchers were eventually offered, the airport is small, so the cafe quickly ran out of food, so people couldn't use the vouchers they were given."
The European Commission has been reviewing the legislation and is considering introducing a voluntary agreement with airlines - rather than new laws - to help clarify the situation.
The British Air Transport Association, which represents UK airlines, says it is confident this will "result in a standard approach to these issues and put an end to any confusion or misunderstandings that may have previously arisen".
The Association of European Airlines (AEA) said its members "observe the rules as to both prompt payment of compensation where due and in the provision of information".
In a statement, the AEA said: "Airlines do not view cancellations for technical reasons in the same way as commercial cancellations.
"On the one hand, it could be argued that the airworthiness of the aircraft should be within the control of the operator.
"However, it could equally be argued that an operator will do everything within his control to ensure having an airworthy aircraft ready to operate its services."