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Smart Consumer: How to weather the storm when your flight is cancelled

Over Christmas, Stephen's flight from Dublin to a European city was cancelled due to snow at that airport.

However, after doing some research, Stephen discovered that the airport wasn't closed at all, and so he wonders if the Irish airline cancelled the flight for other reasons.

His guess is that they needed the plane to help transport the backlog of passengers whose earlier flights had been cancelled due to snow.

The reason for the cancellation is important because if it was within the airline's control, then the passenger is entitled to financial compensation.

Louise was flying back from Paris with her boyfriend in the new year and their flight was cancelled because of the bad weather.

They had to fork out for hotel accommodation before making their way back to the airport for their rescheduled flight the next day.

They didn't know that the airline should have provided the accommodation for them.

Between the bad weather over the new year and last Wednesday's industrial action at Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports, most of us know someone who wasn't able to depart or arrive by plane as planned.

But do you know what entitlements affected passengers have? Patricia Barton of the Commission for Aviation Regulation (CAR) says that they have received "a huge spike in calls, queries and complaints" over the past few weeks, with people aiming to find out just that.

In addition to so many delayed and cancelled flights in quick succession in recent weeks, Barton believes there is also a recession-based element to all this.

"People are looking at their money more closely," she says, "and are not willing to pay for an extra night's accommodation, for example".

And indeed they shouldn't have to.

One of the provisions under the EU Regulation governing air passenger rights is that the airlines should provide a 'duty of care' to passengers whose flight is cancelled or if it is delayed by two or more hours if the flight is 1,500km or less or after three or fours hours if the flight is longer.

This 'duty of care' involves access to telephone, fax or email, meals and refreshments and overnight accommodation with transport to and from it while waiting for the rescheduled flight.

If you did not get that, then hopefully you've kept your receipts for accommodation and meals and you should submit them to the airline, along with your flight number and boarding pass if you have one, seeking a reimbursement for those expenses.

If you didn't keep your receipts, Barton advises to contact the airline anyway with your estimate of costs.

Although she admits "this will make your claim more difficult".

For cancelled flights you should have been offered a refund of the cost of that flight or a rescheduled flight at the next available opportunity or at a later date if that's preferable.

Once your flight is delayed over five hours, if you don't want to travel any more you can look for a refund of that part of your ticket.

Or if you're half way to your destination and your connecting flight is no longer any use to you, you can ask for a refund for the part of the journey already made and a flight back to where you came from.

Bear in mind, though, that your onward flight is only a 'connecting flight' if the flights are on the one ticket and not if you have two separate tickets for two flights to get you to your destination.

And what about financial compensation?

Well, it is unlikely that anyone effected by the strike or bad weather will be entitled to this.

Firstly, financial compensation only applies to cancelled flights and not usually for delays.

However, having said that, last year the European Court of Justice ruled that passengers could apply for compensation if their flights arrived three hours or more after the scheduled arrival, so that's worth knowing. In any case, the airlines do have a 'get out' clause in relation to compensation.

If "extraordinary circumstances" lead to the cancellation and it couldn't have been avoided even if "all reasonable measures" were taken by the airline, then they do not have to pay up.

Bad weather and strikes would come under "extraordinary circumstances".

By the way, when it comes to refunds, rescheduling and that 'duty of care', the cause of the delay or cancellation doesn't matter, your entitlements still stand.

And everyone would know all of this anyway if all airlines carried out another obligation they have under the same EU regulation.

If your flight is delayed for two hours of more, or if it's cancelled, they are supposed to give you written information about these entitlements.

This is in addition to a notice that should be displayed at check-in.

So, if you remember nothing else, remember that. And if you arrive at the airport in future to find that your flight is delayed or cancelled, ask for this information so that you know what protection you have.

To find out your rights or make a complaint, contact the Commission for Aviation Regulation at www.aviationreg.ie

Irish Independent