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Here’s what an airline could owe you for ruining a trip


(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

It’s not often air travelers get a win, but recent laws and legal decisions are giving passengers a few more rights.

Canada enacted the first phase of a new air-passenger protection code that applies to overbooked flights on July 15. The next wave goes into effect in mid-December, establishing rules for compensating those who are delayed or have a flight canceled. The changes apply to all flights to, from and within the country.

“The new system is far from perfect, but also much better than what we had before,” the Canadian Automobile Association wrote on its website. “For the first time, Canadians will have standardized, publicly accessible passenger rights.”

And in Europe, a legal ruling this month added more protections to long-standing passenger rights regulations. According to flight-disruption compensation company AirHelp, the decision by the European Court of Justice essentially applies to code sharing. It clarifies that travelers can seek compensation from the airline they booked their flight with, even if the delay or disruption happened on a connecting leg that was operated by a different carrier — even a non-E.U. airline. The flights must have been made under the same booking reference.

“This is the first time that a carrier in [the European Union] can be responsible for paying compensation for another carrier’s fault,” says Christian Nielsen, AirHelp’s chief legal officer. “It now puts passengers in a better position.”

AirHelp is one of several companies that work with passengers to get compensation from airlines, taking a battle to court when needed. Others include Flightright, ClaimCompass and Refund.me; all take a slice of the money if they successfully negotiate a claim.

Despite the cottage industry that has grown around the issue of compensation for disrupted trips, travelers — and especially Americans — are not well versed in their rights. According to AirHelp, nearly 108,000 U.S. air travelers were eligible to claim some type of money under the European regulation known as EC 261 between Memorial Day and Labor Day last year, but almost 61,000 still have not. A 2018 study by the company showed that 92 percent of U.S. travelers and 85 percent of European Union passengers were not aware of what they could be entitled to.

“They don’t say, ‘Hi, welcome to British Airways, by the way, if this flight is canceled due to any fault of ours, this is what we owe you. Please enjoy your flight, thank you,’” said airline expert George Hobica. “They don’t want people to know.”

Read on for what travelers could be owed if they are bumped, delayed or their flight’s canceled.

Bear in mind that airlines are not responsible for payment if the circumstances of the disruption are beyond their control, a characterization that could be extremely broad. They might fight a claim and ultimately may not be held responsible.

International flights worldwide: Under a treaty called the Montreal Convention, airlines must reimburse passengers for expenses and losses caused by a flight disruption up to $6,300, AirHelp says. Travelers must keep receipts and show proof of the damages they sustained because a flight was delayed or canceled. Airlines are not required to pay if “extraordinary circumstances” are to blame, the company said.

Hobica cautions that getting reimbursement under this avenue can be difficult to navigate.

“You have to hire a lawyer, you have to go to court,” he said. “You have to prove it, so it’s really hollow — but some people do use it.”

European travel: Travelers flying to Europe on a European Union airline or flying out of the E.U. on any carrier are entitled to compensation of up to 600 euros, or currently about $670, for delays of more than three hours, cancellations that result in travelers arriving to their destinations within a specific time after their scheduled arrival, or being kicked off a flight because of overbooking, AirHelp says.

Disruptions outside of airlines’ control are not covered.

Flightright’s head of legal innovation, Alisha Andert, said in an email that this applies to U.S. airlines that leave an airport within the E.U. or flights that leave the United States if the carrier is an E.U. airline.

Hobica said for this reason, if there’s an option to book a flight from the United States to European Union countries on an E.U. carrier, he recommends it.

“Why would you do anything else?” he said.

Canadian flights: As of this month, passengers who are involuntarily bumped from a flight to, from or within Canada for reasons within an airline’s control are eligible for as much as $2,400 Canadian (or currently more than $1,800 U.S. dollars). Starting Dec. 15, passengers will be entitled to as much as about $1,000 Canadian if their flights are canceled or delayed by certain amounts of time, Flightright said.

The regulations are a big step up, AirHelp’s Nielsen said, but he cautioned that airlines have many excuses why they wouldn’t have to pay written into the code.

“You can clearly see in the law that the airlines have had a lot to say specifically in relation to compensation,” he says.

U.S. travel: First, the bad news. “The U.S. is one of the only Western or highly developed countries that don’t have strong air passenger rights for delays and cancellations,” Nielsen says.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, no law requires airlines to compensate passengers for delays or cancellations on domestic flights. But those who are bumped against their will can be eligible for compensation up to $1,350 — a more generous amount than the E.U. offers, Andert points out. The amount a passenger can get depends on how delayed they are in getting to their final destination and how much their original flight cost. If an airline arranges for an alternate flight that gets a passenger to their destination within an hour of their original time, they are not eligible for compensation.

Some airlines could also offer more money than the law requires; Hobica points to JetBlue as an example. On its website, the airline outlines scenarios in which it would issue credits to passengers in case of delays and cancellations that are due to “controllable irregularities.” Amounts range from $50 to $250 depending on the circumstances.

Hobica said he could envision a day when the United States might pass regulations that force all airlines to pay passengers for delays and cancellations — though he would be surprised if the current administration took a pre-regulation stance.

“Especially when you consider that Canada is stepping up and Europe has been stepping up for a long time, the American airlines don’t look good,” he said.

Read more:

Everything we learned about Nancy Pelosi’s flying habits from one photo

The completely correct guide to reclining on an airplane

Turns out, misbehaving on a plane could cost you big money

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