Protesters stormed Barcelona’s El Prat airport last week, angered by the imprisonment of Catalan separatist leaders. The airport protests resulted in 45 canceled flights, stranding travelers and generally slowing operations at the airport. Protests like this one occur in airports around the globe regularly, always bringing up an interesting conundrum for unsuspecting travelers: What are your rights when protests affect your travel?
Protests are typically classified as force majeure events in an airline’s contract of carriage. “Force majeure” events are anything beyond the airline’s control, such as (in United’s contract of carriage) “meteorological or geological conditions, acts of God, riots, terrorist activities, civil commotions, embargoes, wars, hostilities, disturbances, or unsettled international conditions.”
“Riots” and “civil commotions” are the operative terms here, either of which would cover any protest or demonstration substantial enough to affect travel. In these cases, traveler’s rights are somewhat limited. Airlines are not liable for force majeure events so they aren’t technically obligated to do anything; but that would be a bad look, so they do typically work to re-accommodate passengers in some form.
That said, passengers in these cases may have to push for anything more. United, for example, says it “may re-accommodate passengers on another available UA flight” or find alternate options on another carrier or mode of transportation. But additional assistance, such as a hotel room, “will not be furnished when such interruption is due to circumstances outside [its] control.” I’m not picking on United here—this is typical of most airlines, and so serves as an example. Long story short: An airport protest is no different than a hurricane, at least in terms of your rights as an airline passenger.
Unfortunately, most travel insurance policies won’t cover you if an airport protest, or any other protest, impacts your trip. Allianz insurance, for example, lists “civil disorder or unrest” as an “unforeseen event that travel insurance does not cover.” Allianz and other travel insurance providers also distinguish between “civil unrest” and terrorism, with the latter defined (from an insurance perspective) by a specific event. Here’s an example from Allianz:
You’ve just arrived in Cairo and are preparing to depart for a grand Egypt tour. Then a riot breaks out in Tahrir Square as protesters and police clash. Terrified, you retreat to your hotel room and begin making plans to fly home. Will travel insurance cover your trip cancellation because of the riot?
No, because civil unrest is not the same thing as terrorism. Allianz Global Assistance’s travel insurance defines terrorism specifically as “when an organized terrorist group, as defined by the U.S. State Department, injures or kills people or damages property to achieve a political, ethnic, or religious goal or result.” Terrorist events don’t include general civil protest, unrest, rioting, or acts of war.
Allianz adds, “if a strike or unrest results in your carrier or tour operator ceasing services for 24 hours, then that could be considered a covered reason for trip cancellation.” Basically, a protest alone won’t trigger your insurance, but cancellations resulting from the protest might. Bottom line: Read the fine print of your insurance policy before you buy, as always.
Of course, for added protections you can add a cancel-for-any-reason option (CFAR) to their policy, which is exactly what it sounds like. This kind of add-on coverage is expensive, but offers far more certainty when a disruption occurs. CFAR is not a magic bullet, however. They may not reimburse the full amount of your expenses, and some CAFR add-ons carry stipulations when it comes to filing the claims.
Readers: Have you ever had a vacation or trip disrupted by a protest? Comment below.