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You versus the volcano (or the airline strike)


(AP Photo/Chris Clark)

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By David Stewart White
May 21, 2010

A flight to Europe this spring and summer is enough to make a traveler feel like an extra in a bad movie.  The plot: volcanoes erupt, airports close, airline unions strike, flights are canceled. 

Even with all the consumer protection provided by European Union rules, travelers may still feel like the hapless Griswalds in European Vacation movie where "For over two thousand years, Europe has survived many great disasters. Now for the real test. Chevy Chase and his family are coming from America!" (source: Internet Movie Database)

Fortunately, the European Union has consumer-friendly regulations that cover flight delays and cancellations.  Unfortunately, the rules generated by the EU bureaucrats—and policies developed by European airlines—are sometimes as clear as the skies above Iceland's Eyjafjallajokul volcano.

The European Union requires that airlines provide care and, in some cases compensation, for delayed or canceled flights. The rules distinguish between cancellations/delays within an airline’s control versus those that are outside of the carrier’s control. Strikes, volcanic eruptions, and weather are normally considered outside the control of the airline.

These rules apply for European airlines and for any flight that takes off from or lands in the European Union. 

Rules for cancellations outside of an airline's control
In relatively plain English, here’s what British Airways policy is for flights canceled due to a strike. BA operates strictly under EU rules.  This is not a legal interpretation so, in cases of dispute, the legalese in the EU regulations and BA policies will probably prevail.

Canceled flights—If a British Airways flight is canceled because of a strike the passenger can:

  • Rebook on to another BA flight to the same destination within 355 days,
  • Take another BA flight to or from the nearest alternative airport,
  • Rebook on another approved airline (if seats are available), or
  • Cancel the booking and get a refund

Partial cancellations—If part of a BA itinerary is canceled the passenger is entitled to:

  • Rerouting on comparable transport* to the final ticketed destination, as soon as seats are available (or later, if desired), or
  • A refund payable for the part the journey that the passenger did not fly.

* Comparable transport means passengers are not necessarily entitled to fly first class if they paid for coach.

Delays—If a flight is delayed for five hours or more:

  • Passengers can get a refund the part(s) of the journey not flown.

Missed connections—If a cancellation or five-plus hour delay causes a passenger to miss a connecting flight (within 24 hours) the airline will:

  • Fly the passenger back to the original departure point as soon as possible, if desired, and,
  • Reimburse the part(s) of the journey that were flown, if the flight no longer serves any purpose in the passenger’s original travel plans.

Care of stranded passengers—If a flight is canceled or significantly delayed, the airline must provide:

  • Refreshments and meals,
  • Hotel accommodation for overnight delays and transport between the airport and hotel, and
  • A way for passengers to contact two people outside the airport.

This applies if for flights that are:

–1500 km or shorter and delayed two hours or more
–Longer than 1500 km (within the European Union) and delayed for three hours or more
–1500 km to 3500 km (outside the EU) and delayed for 3 hours or long
–All other flights delayed for four hours or longer.

Rules for cancellations or delays that are within the airline's control
Under European Union rules for cancellations that are within the control of the airline, passengers are entitled to compensation for canceled flights, depending upon the amount of advance notification given to the passenger.

Seven to thirteen days notice—the airline must pay compensation if it does not offer to reroute the passenger on a flight that departs within two hours, and arrives with four hours, of the original schedule.

Less than seven days notice— compensation required unless rerouted on a flight that departs within one hour, and arrives within two hours, of the original schedule.

Compensation amounts:

  • Flights of 1500 km or less— €250
  • Flights within the EU over 1500 km—€400
  • Flights outside EU between 1500 km and 3500 km—€400
  • All other flights—€600

Compensation is reduced by 50 percent if the passenger is offered re-routing that gets the individual to the final destination:

  • Flights of 1500 km or less—within two hours
  • All flights within the EU of more than 1500 km—within three hours
  • All other flights between 1500km and 3500 km—within three hours
  • All other flights—within four hours


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