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Air travelers’ rights in Europe

SmarterTravel

Although it was late to the game, the European Commission has leapfrogged the U.S. in promoting rights for air travelers. And although the new regulations just went into effect this year, they’re already causing some uncertainties here in the U.S. A reader asked about how to respond to a recent experience.

“My flight on a U.S.-based airline from Birmingham (U.K.) to Newark was cancelled, and I was delayed by over 24 hours. One of the things the airline did was provide us with a hand-out regarding our rights, which stated that if I was delayed by over five hours or my flight was cancelled, European Parliament Regulation required the airline to reimburse me by €600.

“When I finally got home and called the airline, its U.S. agents seemed to be confused about this law even though its own U.K. employees handed out the information. Eventually the agent here said she would send me a voucher for $200, even though that’s just a quarter of what I should be legally owed. In the letter the line admitted that engine trouble caused the cancellation, which eliminates the ‘extraordinary circumstances’ loophole which some of the airlines use to weasel out of their responsibilities.

“My question is, since this is the law, is the airline just trying to make me a token offering hoping I won’t pursue this? Do I have legal rights to pursue this, as it seems I would have?”

The short answers: (1) I can’t tell whether the airline is deliberately withholding on you or just isn’t familiar with the new rules, (2) you do have a legal right, but (3) pursuing it now may become a problem.

The new regulations

Europe’s requirements are now more stringent than current U.S. requirements:

  • Compensation to be paid to passengers by the airlines in the event of long delays or denied boarding is €250 ($335) on flights up to 1,500 km (938 miles), €400 ($540) on flights between 1,500 km and 3,500 km (2,188 miles), or €600 ($810) for flights longer than 3,500 km. Those figures are reduced by 50 percent when the delay does not exceed two, three, or four hours, respectively. The only exception is in cases where an airline can prove that cancellation was due to extraordinary circumstances that could not have been avoided. Weather, however, is not an exclusion.
  • In the event of long delays, the airline has to offer meals, refreshments, hotel accommodation if necessary, and means of communication. If the delay exceeds five hours, it has to propose refunding the ticket (with, if necessary, a free flight to your point of departure).

The new rights cover all types of flights by European airlines: charter, regular, or domestic; departing from any European Union airport or departing from an airport outside the E.U. and flying to an E.U. airport; and whenever the flight is operated by an E.U. airline and the passenger has not received any compensation in a third country.

These laws also apply to non-E.U. airlines (including those based in the U.S.) departing from any E.U. airport. They apply to all airlines, including “low cost” carriers. And they cover flights arranged through frequent flyer awards—although they do not cover “free” flights.

The new rights do not preclude recourse to the law for travelers who believe that the specified compensation is inadequate.

New regulations do not change existing regulations on lost/damaged baggage—regulations that are generally inadequate on international flights.

The opposition

Although the regulations became effective last February, they still face some serious challenges:

  • Several airlines and trade associations have filed objections and a British judge has put a preliminary question to the Court of Justice about the legality of this regulation. According to the E.U., the Court of Justice should decide the issue this year. Meanwhile, says the E.U., the regulation remains entirely valid.
  • Low-fare airlines are especially active in opposing the new regulation, since the amounts of compensation are often many times the value of the tickets they sell.

At least as far as the E.U. is concerned, however, the regulations will remain in effect unless and until the Commission rescinds or modifies them.

Enforcement

According to the E.U., travelers should address a complaint to the national authorities designated by each member state. As of mid-May, most E.U. members (and cooperating countries) have established or designated national organizations to handle complaints: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the U.K., as well as Norway and Switzerland. Check the online listing (.pdf) for the names and addresses.

For complaints arising in other countries, the Commission suggests travelers contact the Commission’s office directly (see above link for references).

What to do

U.S. airline personnel may be unaware of the new regulations or how to apply them to travelers who have returned to the U.S. Clearly, then, the obvious recommendation for future travelers is to make a claim as soon as the delay occurs—preferably in Europe, before leaving. Agents in Europe should be thoroughly familiar with the new rules and they should be the ones to process the paperwork if at all possible.

In our reader’s case, as I noted, I can’t tell whether the airline is deliberately underpaying its obligation or its U.S.-based agents are simply unaware of the new regulations and how to administer them. Moreover, I’m at a bit of a loss to specify exactly what our reader should do now, after the fact. I know of no cases that have arisen so far, and I couldn’t find any documentation. Given that uncertainty, I suggest:

  • Start by contacting the airline again, specifically noting the mandated reimbursement of $810. Agreeing to take this sum in vouchers rather than cash might make the airline loosen its purse strings a bit more readily, but legally it owes you cash.
  • If the airline stonewalls your request, contact the designated national authority in the venue where the delay occurred—in this case, the U.K.
  • If this doesn’t work, think about small claims court in the U.S.

I’ll let readers know if and when I find additional information about how U.S. citizens should go about making claims under E.U. regulations.

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