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Do European Flyers Have More Rights Than U.S. Ones?

AskEd & AnswerEd
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Passenger Sleeping at Airport Lounge (Photo: iStockphoto/Philartphace)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on January 30, 2011. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, AskEd & AnswerEd, Ed Perkins, passenger rights.

The recent really bad weather periods in both Europe and North America resulted in huge numbers of flight delays and cancelations. And several travelers apparently noticed that airlines did a lot more for travelers in Europe than those in the U.S. One reader asked, simply:

"Do European travelers have more rights than U.S. travelers in the event of major flight delays and cancelations?"

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The short answer is, "Yes, European requirements are much stronger, but enforcement seems to be a bit inconsistent."

In February 2004, the European Parliament and Council of 11 established "common rules of compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding and cancelation or long delay of flights," and the resulting Regulation 261/2004 detailed the requirements. Here's a summary of the key provisions, along with highlights of the differences between U.S. and European requirements.

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Application

The regulation applies to (1) passengers on any flight departing from an airport within the European Community and (2) passengers flying on an airline based in the EC from any other country to an airport within the EC, unless compensated in the originating country. As in the U.S., passengers must comply with check-in and ticketing requirements.

What's Different: U.S. rules, in general, do not apply to flights to the U.S. from other countries, even on U.S. airlines. And although the European regulation does not apply to travelers traveling "free of charge," it specifically does apply to travelers on frequent flyer tickets.

Denied Boarding

When an airline expects to "bump" travelers, the airline must first call for volunteers in exchange for whatever the airline and traveler can agree on. If not enough travelers agree, the airline must either re-route them or compensate them. The compensation scale ranges from €250 (about $300) to €600, depending on the distance to the travelers' final destinations.

What's Different: U.S. rules limit bumping compensation to the sole case of overbooking, but European regulations apply to bumping for any reason. This is a big difference – a major weakness in U.S. requirements, but one which it appears the U.S. Department of Transportation does not intend to correct in the new rules it plans to issue in April. Also, U.S. compensation varies by the amount of delay rather than distance.

Cancelation and Delay

If a flight is canceled, an airline is required to offer "assistance," including a ticket refund or re-routing at either the earliest opportunity or at a later date of the traveler's convenience. If a traveler selects a refund, it will be of either (1) the unused portion of the ticket or (2) the full price of the ticket in the event that completion of the trip would no longer serve the purpose of the travel. And the regulations guarantee the right to a refund even if an airline notifies travelers of cancelations two weeks or less before the scheduled departure unless the airline can guarantee alternate arrival within a few hours of schedule.

Airlines must also provide denied boarding compensation, as specified above, unless the airline notifies travelers of the cancelation at least two weeks in advance or if it cannot arrange alternate transportation that will get travelers to their destinations within two to four hours of their original schedules (depending on cancelation specifics).

If the first available re-routing is reasonably expected to be a day or more after the canceled flight, an airline must provide additional "care." This includes meals and refreshments, overnight hotel accommodations, and telephone calls.

Airlines are exempt from the compensation requirement when they can prove that a cancelation is "caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken." Presumably, this exclusion includes severe weather incidents. Although the regulation exempts airlines from the compensation requirement in such cases, however, it does not exempt airlines from the "assistance" and "care" requirements, even in the case of extraordinary circumstances.

Requirements for delays parallel those for cancelations. Requirements for compensation, "assistance," and "care" kick in after delays of two hours for flights on 1,500 kilometers (about 900 miles) or less, three hours for flights of 1,500 to 3,500 kilometers, and four hours for longer flights.

What's Different: This entire set of requirements differs sharply from the practice in the U.S. Other than the overbooking requirement and the new tarmac delay limits, U.S. regulations impose no other specific obligations for airlines when they delay or cancel flights. Those requirements are strictly voluntary, as contained in each line's official contract of carriage. All the government requires is that each line publish its contract; not what's in the contract. As a practical matter, most airlines agree to provide refunds or transport travelers on canceled flights on their next available flights, and a few even agree to transfer travelers to other airlines. All the contracts I've seen, however, promise nothing in the event of weather delays and cancelations.

The full EC regulation covers several other less critical rights. It's posted online.

Enforcement

Technically, the EC does not enforce these regulations. Instead, it directed each member country to establish its own enforcement body. As far as I can tell, all the member countries have complied. Still, industry reports indicate that enforcement of the regulations is uneven, and that, specifically, many airlines did not provide the full compensation and assistance to travelers stranded for several days in the recent snowstorm or the earlier volcanic ash cloud. Moreover, apparently, European airlines generally did not offer the required compensation and assistance to passengers on European-based airlines on flights delayed in the U.S. headed for Europe. Clearly, full rights, as conferred in the regulations, are still a work in progress.

As a practical matter, if you're flying within Europe, from Europe on any airline, or flying to Europe on a European airline, you should be aware of your European-based rights. You should also be aware that any given airline might not volunteer the full schedule of rights – and might not even acknowledge their applicability. Although you do have rights, you may have to fight for them. And if you decide to pursue a complaint, you can find addresses here for each member country.

Your Turn

Have you experienced the "rights" described above on European flights? Tell us about it by adding a comment below!

 
 
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