26 Sep

Up, up and away?

Not so long ago, flying was too a great extent the preserve of rich people and business travellers. This changed significantly after the introduction of larger, more fuel-efficient aircraft was followed by the opening up of the skies to a number of different airlines, which led to the birth of the low-cost carriers and a dramatic fall in the cost of flying.  At the same time, airlines have gradually been cutting back on in-flight services such as free alcohol and food, shrinking the size of seats and charging to put baggage in the hold.

People have started to grumble that the glamour has gone out of flying, that it’s now just a way of getting you from A-B, but isn’t that rather the point? In the past, you paid limousine prices so you got a limousine. Now, you are paying for the equivalent of a second-class train seat or a flying bus.

I think we would all agree that whatever you have paid for your ticket, there is one basic requirement - that the aircraft gets you to your destination at roughly the same time stated and agreed on your ticket.

However, last week, that was not the case for hundreds of thousands of passengers who had booked with a well-known low-cost airline that had cancelled hundreds of flights at short notice.

The airline gave the reason that this was due to large numbers of their pilots taking up their annual leave entitlements at the same time. Understandably, this caused a great deal of anger amongst their passengers and uproar in the media, plus a fair amount of head-scratching in the industry over the reasons behind the cancellations and the way the situation was handled. However, the story highlighted a very important piece of consumer legislation introduced by the European Union (EU) in 2004, Regulation 261.

Consumer rights under regulation 261

The EU initially introduced Regulation 261 to address the problem of airlines overbooking seats, where customers are told at the airport that there is no seat for them. The regulation describes this as “Denied Boarding” and requires airlines to offer seats on the next available flight or a refund, plus financial compensation of between 250-600 euros, depending on the length of the flight.

However, it also addresses the issue of airlines cancelling flights for other reasons within their control, and the same rights apply if the flight is cancelled 14 days or less prior to departure.

The legislation also requires airlines to provide assistance for customers stranded overseas in terms of food and refreshments, as well as offering them the option of a refund or “rerouting”. Airlines will usually offer rebooking on another of their flights to get you home, though many will also arrange for you to fly home with another airline if it is available sooner, which may well work out cheaper for them than putting you up in a hotel and paying for your food and drink for a few days.

What about if you are on a package holiday?

Holidaymakers on package holidays are in the best position, with tour operators quickly rebooking them, often with other airlines at no extra cost. Where this is not possible, or if the holiday has been significantly changed, they offer full refunds of the package price. Many independent travellers find out to their cost that, although they may get a refund or a replacement flight, they are hit with cancellation fees for unused accommodation and other prepaid services. If they are lucky, these will be covered by their travel insurance, but unfortunately this isn’t always the case.

Where does the EU regulation apply?

As this is an EU regulation, it only applies to EU based airlines and flights within the EU. It is fair to say that it has not been universally popular with airlines but I would say that they should look at it differently. By providing a coherent, consistent framework for consumer rights in the event of a cancellation, the regulation has helped to build consumer confidence in air travel. It also helps to deflect a great deal of the public and media anger when wide-scale cancellations occur for no good reason.

So what can you do now?

If you've been affected by a cancelled flight, you can find out more about the EU denied-boarding and delayed flight compensation system here.