The volcanic eruption in Iceland this week caused the most widespread disruption of airline service since 9/11. By the time the dust finally settles (literally), hundreds of thousands of travelers will have been inconvenienced, many of them severely.
If you're one of the unlucky ones caught in the mess, it's probably too late for any useful help. But even if you're not currently involved, you're probably still asking:
"What are my rights when my flights, and many others, are cancelled due to something like the volcano?"
The short answer is, "Your rights are determined by whatever your airline offers you and what is in its actual contract of carriage. No less, but no more."
The Legal Framework
Airline contracts, insurance policies, and government regulations generally class massive natural disturbances as "force majeure" events or "acts of God," meaning events clearly and completely outside anyone's control. For the most part, when contracts or regulations enumerate such events, they include extensive weather problems, strikes, war outbreak, and such. Although "volcanic eruptions" may not be listed, however, they clearly fall into this category. And almost all contracts and regulations specifically exempt airlines from any compensation requirements in the case of force majeure events.
U.S. government regulations on cancelled air service are confined to two extremely limited situations, neither of which applies to the current mess:
- Denied boarding ("bumping") due to overbooking, in which case travelers are entitled to specified compensation. This compensation does not apply to any other cases of denied boarding, delay, or cancellation.
- Extended tarmac delays (the newest wrinkle) in which case the airline pays a fine to the government but nothing to individual travelers.
Beyond this, the only specific U.S. government requirement is that airlines should cover delays and cancellations in their contracts of carriage and make those provisions available to travelers through a "Customer Service Plan." In practice, all U.S. airlines post such information on their websites.
The Europeans cover more airline contingencies, with governmental requirements that airlines compensate travelers on delayed flights and provide meals and overnight accommodations, as the situation dictates. These requirements apply to all flights within the EEC, all international flights departing from the EEC, and flights on EEC-based airlines from non-EEC countries into the EEC. However, the controlling regulation (ED 261/2004) specifically states, "obligations on operating air carriers should be limited or excluded in cases where an event has been caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken." The exemption specifically includes "meteorological conditions." Clearly, in this case, airlines are off the hook.
Refund, If Nothing Else
No matter what else, in a force majeure cancellation or extended delay, you always have one basic right: a full and timely refund, even on an otherwise nonrefundable ticket, tour ticket, or even consolidator ticket. The refund is normally in the same form as your payment: cash or credit to your credit card. An airline may offer a voucher, but if you want a cash refund, you can demand it.
Unfortunately, a refund often doesn't make you "whole" in the tort law sense. If you started with a really cheap ticket, you may find the cost to rebook your trip is much higher than your original fare. And if you're on the return portion of a round-trip ticket, half of the round-trip fare may not buy you much in the way of a new one-way return ticket.
Airlines are unanimous in refusing to cover any "consequent damages" resulting from a delay or cancellation. That means they won't be responsible for any losses you suffer due to missed tours or cruises and such.
In mass disruptions such as this, airlines almost always waive rebooking penalties and advance-purchase and minimum-stay limitations when you reschedule your trip. However, airlines limit your options:
- Typically, you have to rebook your trip and take that trip within specific time windows. Those time windows vary by airline. As of April 16, for example, American says you must complete substitute travel by April 30; British Airways says you have three weeks to start another trip and either three months or the limit of your original ticket validity, whichever is longer, to complete your trip; Delta says you have until April 30 to make a new booking and until May 31 to start your replacement trip. And no line says anything about what you can do if you can't find a replacement seat within the stated booking and flight time window.
- You can rebook only in the same cabin as your original ticket, but even in this case, different airlines have different restrictions. American does not limit you to the same booking class as your original ticket, just the same cabin, while British Airways does limit you to your original "fare bucket." That could have a big impact on how easily you can find a replacement flight.
- Airlines also vary in rerouting options. United requires that origin and destination must remain the same, while British Airways allows rerouting to/from other airports in the same country or even nearby airports in different countries, such as Lyon and Geneva.
In previous large-scale disturbances, the time windows have been sliding. The airlines cancel only a few days in advance, and if a problem persists more than a few days, they adjust rebooking windows accordingly.
Obviously, airline responses are not uniform. You have to check each line for particulars: All of them post the latest conditions on their websites and invite you to change online or through an agent; expect a long "hold" if you call.
Tour, Hotel, and Cruise Bookings
A delayed or cancelled flight can easily make you miss a cruise or tour departure or fail to arrive for a prepaid accommodation. So far, however, those other suppliers seem to be either playing the situation by ear or punting:
- Among the many tour operator websites I checked, only Contiki and Grand European Tours had anything to say about the disruption, and both punted by advising their travelers to contact their airlines or travel agents, promising they were "working with" airlines, and referring travelers to their insurance for possible refunds. The major tour operators' trade association, USTOA, had nothing to say.
- I checked several of the largest hotel operators in Europe, and found that not one said anything about changing nonrefundable or prepaid reservations.
- Vacation rental contracts typically contain no force majeure exemption; unless you can arrange your own alternative, any applicable no-show penalty applies no matter why you have to cancel.
- I found nothing on any cruiseline's website. However, Cruise Critic is keeping track of whatever the folks there can find, and that isn't much. Most lines say they're "trying" to find substitute transportation and are monitoring the situation. In general, you can expect some combination of slightly modified itineraries and options to reschedule.
All in all, weak responses seem to be the norm. And no governmental regulations apply to these other suppliers; the only rights you have are in basic contract law.
Travel Insurance: Maybe Helps, Maybe Doesn't
Travel insurance may or may not help. I received an informative email from John Cook, President of QuoteWright.com, the basic points of which I pass along to you:
Travel insurance policies contain separate coverages that might apply in the current situation: trip cancellation/interruption, missed connection, and travel delay. All are "named peril" coverages, meaning the insurance pays off only for a claim caused by an event specifically listed in the policy.
Interruption/cancellation coverage generally applies when a natural disaster or adverse weather either:
- Causes your carrier to cease operations completely for a set time period, usually a minimum of 24 hours, or
- Causes your destination area or accommodation there to become uninhabitable.
Most policies cover the uninhabitable case, but not all cover shutdown of the carrier. Moreover, coverage may depend on whether the event in question is classed as a "natural disaster" or an "adverse weather" event. And it's anyone's guess as to whether a given insurance company would classify a high-altitude ash cloud as adverse weather or a natural disaster.
Coverage for travel delay and missed connection is clearer. Although these are also "named peril" coverages, most policies include both "adverse weather" and "natural disaster" as covered events.
The fundamental rule with insurance is that you get what the policy says and only what the policy says. And as with health insurance, the industry claims processing practice is to employ the most restrictive definitions possible. That means read your fine print carefully and assume nothing.
Accept the Least Worst
In a major disruption such as the volcano eruption, chances are slim to none that you won't suffer some degree of loss, whether it be of time, money, what you wanted to do, or all three. At best, you can find an alternative that minimizes your loss. And your best approach is often to discover your own preferred solution and offer it to the supplier.