The hefty fines for airlines have led them to go to extraordinary measures to avoid compensation flyers as the law would suggest. Is it time to make the fines more realistic?
European airlines have been accused of obstructing passengers who seek compensation for delays and cancelled flights.
A website that offers assistance to travellers with claims has come up against airlines that refuse to share information and others that reject all complaints out of hand, forcing passengers to endure a lengthy and often off-putting procedure.
“Passengers are often not aware of their rights,” said Raymond Veldkamp from Flight-Delayed.co.uk, which has represented fliers in seven European countries, including 800 from Britain. “They will usually be fobbed off with vouchers for a future flight, when they are entitled to proper compensation.”
Mr Veldkamp said that carriers reject claims “95 per cent of the time” and deliberately fill their letters to claimants with legal jargon, which often puts passengers off.
He urged airlines to be more open with information about delays, and singled out Ryanair as one of the most difficult companies to deal with. The no-frills carrier responded in typically dismissive style, describing the claims as “ambulance-chasing rubbish”.
Mr Veldkamp’s comments followed a ruling this week at the European Court of Justice confirming that passengers are entitled to cash compensation for long delays, unless those delays are caused by “extraordinary circumstances”.
Under current regulations, passengers flying to or from an EU, Swiss, Norwegian or Icelandic airport or with an EU, Swiss, Norwegian or Icelandic airline are entitled to meals, refreshments and free telephone calls if their flight is delayed by three hours or more. Since 2009, passengers facing such delays have also been entitled to cash compensation of between €250 (£204) and €600 (£490), depending on the length of the flight. But in Britain, all such claims have been on hold since August 2010, pending the outcome of a legal challenge by airlines including BA and easyJet.
A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority said that the latest ruling, which also confirmed that mechanical problems do not constitute “extraordinary circumstances”, could now oblige airlines to reconsider hundreds of existing claims.
Mr Veldkamp said an estimated €90 million (£73m) in claims was outstanding, but he did not expect the ruling to make the process any easier for passengers.
“Airlines try to mark every case as an ‘extraordinary circumstance’,” he said. “Ill crew, broken cockpit doors, congested toilets… we receive odd justifications on a daily basis.”
Nick Trend, Telegraph Travel’s consumer editor, agreed that a sudden change in what passengers are able to claim for is unlikely.
“Unfortunately, the definition of ‘extraordinary’ is used to cover most delays, including those caused by bad weather, strikes and political instability,” he said.
“In practice, it is only in a relatively small proportion of cases, such as when an aircraft develops a technical problem, that the airline becomes liable. And airlines hold all the cards – it may be a hard and expensive process for a consumer to prove what caused the delay.”