Plane relief: What are your rights when things go wrong?
In the first part of our new series on air-passenger rights, Pól Ó Conghaile has the low-down on what to do when your airline messes up
One year ago, Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, throwing European air travel into chaos.
The industry's troubles were only beginning. A spate of airport strikes and nightmare weather late in the year continued to play havoc with flight schedules. By the end of 2010, tens of thousands of flights had been cancelled, countless more were delayed and losses ran into the billions.
If it was an annus horribilis for airlines, however, spare a thought for their passengers. Left stranded and out of pocket, facing missed connections, disrupted holidays and with no idea when they would make it home, millions were forced to take a crash course in air passenger rights.
What's shocking is that, a year later, many are still taking it.
Queries to the Commission for Aviation Regulation more than doubled in 2010, and the 'Irish Independent' has been inundated with complaints from readers, some of whom have waited months for responses from their airline.
"It's impossible to navigate these problems when you have the might of the airlines, and possibly even travel agents and your insurance company, basically just giving you the push-around because no one wants to pay," says Mike Rattenbury, group counsel for EUclaim.com, a Dutch compensation firm that fights airlines on consumers' behalf.
Nor does it require snow or ash for passengers to get a raw deal. Last year was an exceptional one for airlines, and a big effort was made to process an avalanche of claims. But readers have had their correspondence ignored and argued by airlines in the blazing sunshine too.
So where do you stand? What exactly are your rights? We've taken a selection of your cases to the airlines and answered your most common questions below. Forewarned is forearmed.
What are my rights if my flight is cancelled?
Regulation (EC) 261/2004 of the European Parliament sets out the minimum rights for passengers whose flights are cancelled, delayed, or who are denied boarding.
If your flight is cancelled, airlines should offer a choice between a refund (within seven days), a re-routing at the earliest opportunity or a re-routing at a later date.
If you opt for a refund, the airline's obligation to you ends immediately.
If you opt for a re-routing at the earliest opportunity, you are entitled to meals, refreshments and hotel accommodation where overnight stays become necessary. Air carriers are also obliged to offer two telephone calls, fax messages or emails free of charge.
If you opt to be re-routed at a later date convenient for you, there is no care obligation.
What if my flight is delayed?
There are acceptable delays and there are soul-sucking, holiday-wrecking, connection-killing delays. But what are your entitlements as a passenger?
Under Regulation (EC) 261/2004, you have a right to care and assistance when:
- A flight of 1,500km or less is delayed by two hours or more;
- Intra-Community (EU) flights of more than 1,500km, and all other flights between 1,500km and 3,500km, are delayed by three hours or more;
- All other flights are delayed by four hours or more.
In the case of such delays, you should receive information on your rights, meals and refreshments in reasonable relation to the waiting time, and hotel accommodation if necessary.
If the delay is five hours or longer and you decide not to travel, you are entitled to a full refund for the parts of the journey not completed.
However, if the purpose of your journey is no longer attainable -- eg if you miss a connecting flight or a meeting -- then a refund must be offered for the part of the journey already made, plus the part not yet made.
If applicable, you should also be offered a flight back to the first point of departure.
Bear in mind that if you do take the option of a refund, the obligation of the air carrier stops right there -- you are no longer entitled to any care or assistance.
How exactly do I change my booking or apply for a refund?
When a flight is cancelled or delayed, airlines are obliged under Regulation (EC) 261/2004 to inform passengers of their options. So the first step is to ask a staff member for help. This isn't always practical however. When a flight is cancelled, hundreds of passengers can be left queuing to speak to a handful of staff who may be in the dark themselves.
Another option is to call the airline's customer centre, but again, the wait may be lengthy. In times of major disruption, Aer Lingus says it experiences up to 1,000pc increases in call volumes.
The best bet is to get on to your airline's website, where you can process your own refunds and re-bookings quickly. If you don't have internet access on your phone or at the airport, call a friend or family member who does -- they can change or apply for the refund for you.
Remember, if you opt for a refund, the airline's obligation to you ends immediately.
What expenses can I claim for?
Regulation (EC) 261/2004 envisaged that, where flights were delayed or cancelled, meals and accommodation would be provided by the airline -- usually by way of vouchers.
What it did not envisage was the ash crisis. It did not envisage millions of passengers left fending for themselves with no idea of how they were going to get from A to B.
"With the best will in the world, [the airlines] wouldn't have been able to get to absolutely every passenger, and some of them wouldn't have been at the airport in the first place," says Patricia Barton, air passenger rights executive with the Commission for Aviation Regulation.
During the crisis, the EU and national enforcement bodies appealed to both airlines and passengers to act reasonably.
Because there is no definition of what constitute 'reasonable' expenses in the Regulation, however, claims have to be examined on a case-by-case basis.
"It's an obligation on the airline to arrange accommodation for you," says EUclaim's Mike Rattenbury. "If the airline decides they're not going to comply with their obligation, and leave you high and dry to sort your own stuff out, then as far as I'm concerned it's on their own neck."
If you do find yourself stranded as the result of a cancellation or delay, use your best judgement and keep your receipts.
You won't do yourself any favours with an airline or the Aviation Regulator if you eat in Michelin-starred restaurants and bed down in a five-star palace.
"One passenger sent in a receipt for a brand new Ford Fiesta because he couldn't get flights," says Ryanair spokesperson, Stephen McNamara.
"He wanted to drive home from Spain."
Needless to say, his receipt was not reimbursed.
If I do incur expenses, how do I claim them back?
If you are an Aer Lingus passenger, write to the Customer Care Unit at Aer Lingus Head Office, Dublin Airport, Ireland (or fax 01-886 3832).
Ryanair's Customer Service Department is at PO Box 11451, Swords, Co Dublin (or fax 01-812 1676).
It also has an EU Regulation 261 claim form in PDF format on its website (ryanair.com).
Both airlines require original receipts, but remember to keep copies for yourself.
Are all flights covered by Regulation (EC) 261/2004?
No. The Regulation applies only to passengers departing from EU/EAA airports and passengers departing from outside the EU but arriving at an EU airport on an EU/EAA-licensed carrier.
If you have already received compensation or assistance in a third country, then you are no longer entitled to it under the Regulation.
In addition, Regulation (EC) 261/2004 does not apply to anyone travelling for free, on a reduced fair not available to the public or to passengers who check in late.
NEXT WEEK: When and how to get compensation, what to do when an airline ignores your claim and how to deal with lost or missing luggage.
‘When the ash cloud grounded my flight, I had to pay to rebook’
Ursula Quinlan was driving to Dublin Airport from Clare on May 5 last year when she discovered that the airport was closing due to the volcanic ash crisis.
It would be shut from 11am for 24 hours. Her Ryanair flight to Alicante was due to depart at 1.40pm.
Ryanair issued email and SMS notifications advising passengers to change their bookings or request refunds online.
Urusla quickly called her daughter, who had access to the internet, and got her to change her booking.
She did this, but was charged €236.76 for the new flight.
Ursula describes it as a very stressful time. Her partner had suffered a stroke two years ago, they were constantly on and off the phone, and she was also juggling hotel bookings in Dublin.
To compound matters, when she wrote to Ryanair requesting reimbursement, the airline wrote back to say that “as stated in our fare rules, all tickets are nonrefundable”.
It outlined how flights could be changed for a fee under its terms and conditions, and refused to issue a refund. “It was the airline that cancelled the flight,” Ursula says. “Surely we should have some rights?”
She is absolutely correct. Under Regulation (EC) 261/2004, Ursula should have been able to rebook her cancelled flight free of charge, or apply for a refund.
The ‘Irish Independent’ contacted Ryanair on Ursula’s behalf, and the airline reviewed her case.
Its records showed that Ursula appeared to have re-booked her flight in the short window period between cancellation and the activation of its freechange systems.
“In her urgency to change it, it looks like she ended up paying for it,” a spokesperson told us.
“It’s unfortunate, but there are a few things that fall through the cracks.”
The airline put its hands up and issued a refund to Ursula’s credit card.
“I have just checked my credit-card statement and fainted,” Ursula confirms. “Yes, €236.76 has been credited.” “At any time this matter could have been resolved if a call had been made to reservations,” Ryanair says.
“Alternatively, Mrs Quinlan could have requested the bank to charge back on the transaction.”