Oh, those Europeans. They know how to live. Six week vacations, fine wine, great museums...and consumer protection for airline passengers.

In the US, thanks to our laissez-faire attitude toward business in general, consumers have very few protections when it comes to a flight cancellation or delay. Federal law basically only covers denied boarding compensation (when a passenger is bumped off a flight) and that protection, ranging from a cash payment of $200 to $400, is ridiculously low and out of date. Elsewhere on this blog, you'll see our precis of some of the individual US airlines' own rules, some of which do offer protection against delays, diversions, and cancellations (in the form of  arranging alernate transportation on another airline, if available).

But these are not government regulations (athough they stem from pre-deregulation government edicts) and there is absolutely no cash or other monetary compensation for delayed or cancelled flights within or without the airlines' control.

However, In Europe things are quite different. Consumers there actually have some rights, and these forward thinking rules also apply to non-Europeans who are flying out of Europe (but not those flying to Europe unfortunately). They put to shame the paltry protections offered in the US.

Feel free to poke around on the European Commission's website where you can see these regulations spelled out.  This regulation was put in force on February 17, 2005. If you're traveling from a European airport you'd do well do download this document, print it out, carry it with you, and present it to your airline in the event of a cancellation or lengthy delay.

You can see British Airways' statement of these regulations here.

Combattive low cost carrier Ryanair barely mentions the EC rules in its contract.

US Airlines, except for US Airways, do not post these rules on their Web site. Naughty of them (and even US Air only includes the cash compensation for a delayed flight from Europe back to the US). Obviously, most airlines would be very happy if you don't see this article or the EC rules.

In addition to dealing with delay and cancellation monetary compensation, the EC rules also specify that hotel accommodations and meals must be provided for delays a day or more in length. And it's clearly spelled out that should if the delay or cancellation result in the purchased flight "no longer serving any purpose in relation to the passenger's original travel plan" (meaning that the trip is now "futile"), said passenger is entitled to a full refund within 7 days, even on "non refundable" fares. The compensation limits also apply to bumping (denied boarding due to an oversold flight), providing more compensation than US airlines are required to pay.

Oh, and there's this: "This Regulation shall apply without prejudice to a passenger's rights to further compensation." Meaning? Take them to court if you're not happy.

Hello, Washington?

Exceptions and Legal Challenges

Deep in the EC web site however, there is this disclaimer: "Airlines are not obliged to pay compensation if they can prove that the cancellation is caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken (e.g. political instability, meteorological conditions, security risks, unexpected flight safety shortcomings, wild cat strikes) – safety remains the most important right of each passenger ! In these cases, the burden of proof lies with the airline, and passengers still have the right to information, assistance and re-routing."

So, presumably, the airline has to show you some kind of proof that weather or a strike caused the delay.

Needless to say, some European airlines and airline associations were not happy with this regulation, and challenged it in court, but they have been so far unsuccessful.

What you're owed for cancellations and delays

If your flight is cancelled fewer than 7 days before departure and you're offered an alternate flight that scheduled to depart more than one hour later than orginally scheduled and that flight arrives more than two hours later than your original flight; or if your original flight's departure is delayed for two or more hours, the following compensation rules apply, and we quote:

1. (a) EUR 250 for all flights of 1 500 kilometres or less [note: EUR=Euro, which is at the time of this post worth about $1.45; a kilometre is about .62 miles]

(b) EUR 400 for all intra-Community flights of more than 1 500 kilometres, and for all other flights between 1 500 and 3 500 kilometres;

(c) EUR 600 for all flights not falling under (a) or (b). In determining the distance, the basis shall be the last destination at which the denial of boarding or cancellation will delay the passenger's arrival after the scheduled time.

2. When passengers are offered re-routing to their final destination on an alternative flight ... the arrival time of which does not exceed the scheduled arrival time of the flight originally booked

(a) by two hours, in respect of all flights of 1 500 kilometres or less; or

(b) by three hours, in respect of all intra-Community flights of more than 1 500 kilometres and for all other flights between 1 500 and 3 500 kilometres; or

(c) by four hours, in respect of all flights not falling under (a) or (b), the operating air carrier may reduce the compensation provided for in paragraph 1 by 50 %.

[Translation: so let's say your flight leaves more than two hours late, but your alternate flight of 932 or fewer miles arrives fewer than two hours late, the airline can reduce its penalty by half, to 125 EURO or $181; or, if the flight is not more than 3 hours late arriving for flights up to 2174 miles, you'll get $290; or not more than four hours late arriving for long haul flights, you'll get $437.

However, if your flight leaves more than two hours late, and arrives more than two, three, or four hours late, then the 50% disount does not apply. A bit complicated, but the bottom line is that you're covered for severe delays when traveling within or from Europe.]

3. The compensation referred to in paragraph 1 shall be paid in cash, by electronic bank transfer, bank orders or bank cheques or, with the signed agreement of the passenger, in travel vouchers and/or other services."

Tell that to American Airlines when all they offer you is a voucher for a Diet Coke at Heathrow.

Also, for more information and tips about your rights as an airline passenger traveling from or within Europe, visit Air Passengers' Rights, a site established by Amandine Garde and Michael Haravon, two European lawyers .

More Exceptions

These regulations may not apply if:

  • as stated earlier, the airline can prove that the cancellation was caused by "extraordinary circumstances") by which we assume they mean strikes, air traffic control meltdowns, weather, and the like
  • you are traveling on a free ticket other than a frequent flyer ticket
  • you're informed of a cancellation at least two weeks before departure
  • you're informed of a cancellation one to two weeks before departure and offered re-routing that gets you to your destination no more than four hours late
  • you're informed of the cancellation between fewer than 7 days before departure and you are offered rerouting that gets you to your destination fewer than two hours late.

Like any law, this one is subject to amendment and further legal challenges. But it's pretty clear that the US could learn a thing or two from Europeans when it comes to protecting air passengers' rights (but hey, they've been writing laws far longer than the US has). For further details, you can email the EC at tren-aprights@ec.europa.eu

Read more fascinating blog posts here.

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