European airlines better than U.S. for compensation

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The day I was supposed to fly from London to Newark, N.J., this spring, British Airways sent an email saying the flight had been canceled. When I called to rebook, the agent offered a flight two hours earlier, which meant my boyfriend and I had to drop everything and race to Heathrow. The payoff came a month later, when the airline sent a check for $787 (300 euros each), compensation for our inconvenience.

Travelers on flights that are canceled or delayed must often accept whatever rebooking an airline offers, even if it means getting stranded at an airport for days. In the U.S., airlines aren't required to compensate passengers on delayed or canceled flights, but it's a different story in Europe. The payment that my boyfriend and I received was required by the EU's passenger rights law, EC 261, which obligates airlines to pay for a hotel room and meals if travelers are stranded because of a cancellation or delay.

If the problem is the airline's fault -- for instance, our cancellation was due to a malfunctioning plane -- the carrier is supposed to compensate passengers up to 600 euros, based on the length of the flight and how long you're delayed. I was surprised that we qualified since we actually got an earlier flight, but the law covers situations when passengers have little advance notice and have to change their plans.

EC 261 applies to any airline departing from the EU -- including U.S. carriers -- and European airlines flying to or from Europe. It was adopted in 2005; since then, similar rules have been extended to passengers traveling within Europe by rail, ship or bus.

In theory, the law gives travelers greater protection in Europe than in the U.S. In practice, airlines on both sides of the Atlantic have resisted paying some of these benefits, and many passengers do not even know these rights exist. The emails British Airways sent me didn't mention compensation, and neither did the agent I spoke with. I knew about the law, so I found the information on the airline's website (pbritishairways.com/travel/euclaimnor/public/en--gb). But the claims process was easy, and British Airways paid quickly.

"You're lucky you got your money," said Dale Kidd, a spokesman for the European Commission. "Generally, it depends on the airline, but some are better than others at paying claims."

So which airlines are the scofflaws? "I'd prefer not to do naming and shaming," Mr. Kidd said. "It depends a lot on the persistence of the victim making the claim."

One reason airlines have resisted this regulation is disagreement over who should be responsible for stranded travelers when major disruptions occur -- like the volcanic ash cloud that caused more than 100,000 flight cancellations in Europe in 2010.

"The ash cloud went on for eight or nine days, so it's probably unreasonable to expect a carrier to put you up at the Hilton for that length of time," Mr. Kidd conceded. Indeed, the airline industry says carriers lost nearly $2 billion because of the cloud, including expenses for hotel bills, although some airlines refused to pay these claims.

Recognizing that issue, the EU has proposed changing the law to limit airlines' liability to three days of lodging and meals in situations involving "extraordinary circumstances" beyond their control. The proposal would also strengthen oversight and enforcement of the claims process.

There are also lawsuits working their way through the courts that may clarify how passengers can collect compensation under EC 261 from resistant airlines, including at least half a dozen cases in the U.S.

While passenger rights protections are more robust in Europe than in the U.S., there are instances when travelers can collect refunds or compensation in the U.S., although it takes some effort.

For instance in July, I paid $100 to change two tickets for a Delta flight from Detroit to LaGuardia in New York. That flight was subsequently canceled when LaGuardia temporarily closed because a Southwest plane's landing gear collapsed; Delta waived change fees for LaGuardia passengers that day. I wasn't offered a refund of the $100, but when I called and asked for it, Delta agreed. The lesson: Sometimes it pays to ask.

But for the most part, passenger rights regulations in the U.S. don't offer many protections to those stranded because of cancellations or delays.

The Department of Transportation expects to soon release a proposal for its third round of passenger protections, which mostly address how code-share partners and fees are disclosed when travelers book a flight.

But according to Bill Mosley, a DOT spokesman, the department is not considering a rule that would stipulate how airlines must accommodate passengers on delayed or canceled flights -- although it does require carriers to outline how they handle these situations in their customer service plans. Those plans aren't as generous as the benefits offered under EC 261, so don't expect to get put up in a hotel if you get stranded at an U.S. airport during a domestic trip. And if you're flying to Europe, EC 261 may be a good reason to consider choosing a carrier that covers you in both directions across the Atlantic.

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