Kivett was incredulous. “Aren’t they responsible?” he asked me.
We may soon find out. A lawsuit filed this month in a federal district court in Illinois accuses United Airlines of violating EU 261 by failing to compensate passengers whose flights were delayed by more than three hours. It’s the highest-profile effort to date to compel U.S. airlines serving Europe to adopt a more consumer-friendly interpretation of the law. “United has repeatedly failed to compensate passengers as required,” says Hank Bates, an attorney in Little Rock representing two United passengers whose flights didn’t depart on time this summer. He’s seeking class-action status for the case.
United wouldn’t comment on the pending litigation. But a spokeswoman for A4A, a trade group for the domestic airlines that counts United as a member, said that its carriers follow the law. “As with all consumer protection rules, our members carefully adhere to the requirements of Regulation 261,” she said.
The case in question centers on United Airlines flight 949, which was scheduled to depart from Londonat 12:20 p.m. on July 14, according to the complaint. The flight was canceled at 5:42 p.m., and as a result, the two passengers suing United — James Bergman and Kathleen Lynch — didn’t land in Jackson Hole, Wyo., their final destination, until 24 hours after their scheduled arrival time.
Under EU 261, Bergman and Lynch should have received 600 euros each, the lawsuit says. They did not.
“The entire trip was a nightmare for us,” says Bergman, a Web site editor who lives in London. “The most frustrating thing about the experience was the feeling of being powerless. We’d paid thousands of dollars for our flights, and we had no recourse to collect compensation that we were entitled to under European law.”
The complaint highlights a common problem with Europe’s air travel consumer protections: EU 261 isn’t exactly straightforward. I’ve argued with colleagues about who’s covered under the law and who’s exempt. Inevitably, each debate comes down to the definition of two words: “extraordinary circumstances.” Under the law, an airline can simply say that a flight was delayed or canceled because of extraordinary circumstances to get itself off the hook.