Every summer thousands of passengers are stranded at UK airports due to flight delays and cancellations. But when it comes to reimbursing customers, are the airlines paying out?
There has been a phenomenal rise in complaints about delayed and cancelled flights in the UK over the past four years.
Free complaints tool Resolver has seen grievances rocket from 2,064 in 2014 to 118,995 in 2018, a whopping 5,665% rise.
But despite legal rulings making it clear that passengers are entitled to compensation, there is still much confusion over how to claim, and thousands of consumers are not being properly reimbursed.
What the rules are
All flights either to an EU country or from a country within the EU (including Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) are covered by the EU regulation 261/2004.
This enables passengers to claim for compensation once a flight is delayed for more than three hours, as long as the delay is not under ‘extraordinary circumstances’, such as weather or natural phenomena, for example, the Icelandic ash cloud of 2010.
A ruling by the European Court of Justice in March this year clarified that strike action by airline staff did not qualify as an extraordinary circumstance and was within the control of an airline.
However, delays that are caused by strikes by airport staff remain ineligible for compensation claims.
Customers are entitled to between €250 and €600, depending on the flight distance and delay length. If a European flight is cancelled altogether, passengers are entitled to a full refund or alternative flight and may be able to claim compensation too.
The government has insisted flight delay compensation rules will stay the same regardless of whether the UK leaves Europe with a Brexit deal or not. But if Brexit does cause flight disruption passengers are unlikely to be able to claim compensation as it will be deemed beyond an airline’s control.
How airlines make it difficult
Despite clear legislation on compensation rights, “airlines are incredibly difficult about everything” according to Martyn James, head of media and marketing at Resolver.
Many airlines, including Ryanair, Jet2 and Emirates, have challenged aspects of the law in court or have refused to sign up to ombudsman schemes. And it is often difficult to find out how to make a claim for a delayed flight as the information is buried on the airline’s website.
Mr James says that carriers were also employing a range of tactics in order to stall or get out of paying compensation.
“Bureaucracy is the biggest killer of complaints. The EasyJet form has to be filled in completely with no empty fields and requires tons of information. EasyJet also removes the details of former bookings from their customers’ accounts online, leaving them to trawl through old emails to find this info. They are by no means the only airline to do this,” he warns.
Jet2, meanwhile, insists on customers making compensation requests in writing, which have to be sent in the post, even though flights can be booked online.
“The other big delaying tactic comes with actually paying the compensation,” says Mr James. “Often airlines confirm that you are going to get a payment but then it doesn’t materialise – cue much chasing to get your cash. We’re talking about months, even more than a year.”
There are also issues around consumers being able to claim for consequential loss, such as food costs, taxis and transfer buses.
The European Court ruling on this is open to interpretation, with some airlines rejecting complaints for these losses, and others covering them.
Some airlines are better for customer service than others, with Ryanair and British Airways responding well to complaints made through Resolver. And the best companies for paying out compensation on time are Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Loganair and Delta Airlines, it says.
Claims management company RefundMe also agrees that major UK airlines such as British Airways and EasyJet are co-operative, but claims that in its experience, holiday carriers Jet2, Tui Airlines and Thomas Cook are “rather reluctant to pay compensation”.
“I’m still waiting for compensation 16 months later”
More than a year after she complained about a 12-hour delay on Christmas Eve, Susan Grossman has not received financial compensation from Emirates.
The journalist from Hampstead was travelling to visit her daughter in Brisbane, Australia, via a connecting flight in Dubai.
The plane was delayed leaving London Heathrow due to fog but Susan managed to reach the gate in Dubai before it closed.
“I was there at the gate while passengers were boarding but the system had bumped me and other customers off. They were letting some people board but refusing to let the people from London on,” she says.
Susan discovered that she had been booked on to a departure 48 hours later and was given a hotel voucher.
However, she managed to find a flight herself that flew out the next day and she asked staff to book her onto it.
“I was delayed by 12 hours and I ended up spending Christmas Day in the lounge at Dubai airport.
“It screwed up my entire arrangements. My daughter is a doctor and had changed her shifts for me.
“When I finally arrived after 36 hours of travelling I had to wait for three hours in A&E at her hospital for her to come off duty.”
Susan filed a complaint via Resolver and also to Emirates asking for the statutory compensation of €600.
In March 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that Emirates’ connecting flights in Dubai were covered by European passengers’ rights legislation if the outbound flight came from Europe.
Emirates agreed to award Susan 10,000 air miles as a goodwill gesture – but refused to pay any compensation.
A spokesperson told Moneywise that Emirates was fully compliant with European compensation legalisation, but Susan was not eligible for payment due to the flight delay occurring as a result of extraordinary circumstances beyond Emirates’ control.
But Susan says: “The only thing that was extraordinary was that they refused to let me board the connecting flight I was booked on.
“It was a horrible experience and it left a very bad taste about ever flying with Emirates again.”
Complexity of complaining
Passengers initially have to complain to an airline by contacting them directly, or through free tool Resolver or via a claims management company – which will charge a commission.
If their complaint is ignored or rejected, the customer can take their case to court or to an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) service, if the airline is signed up to one. While British Airways, EasyJet, Flybe and Virgin Atlantic are members of ADR schemes, Jet2 and Ryanair are currently not. If an airline is not signed up to an ADR scheme then customers have to go to the Civil Aviation Authority or regulator in the relevant country.
The UK airline regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, has approved five ADR schemes to take on cases: these are AviationADR, Czech Trade Inspection Authority, Latvian Consumer Rights Protection Centre, Sop and CEDR, which charges a £25 fee if your claim is unsuccessful.
Since there is no single ombudsman for all airlines the ADRs have limited powers to enforce decisions.
Customers can find it immensely confusing knowing how to resolve a dispute or which regulatory service to escalate their complaint to.
The European Consumer Centre also deals with customer rights and provides free advice to help deal with airline disputes.
“Air travel and whether a consumer is entitled to compensation is one of the most complained about categories for complaints by UK consumers,” says Andy Allen, UK European Consumer Centre service director.
How many customers win their complaints? It is difficult to calculate the total number of resolved cases or percentage of payouts to customers due to the multiple ways in which customers can complain and the lack of centralised data.
AviationADR has 22 members including AirFrance, Flybe, Virgin Atlantic and Wizz. In 2018 they received 26,877 complaints and accepted 82% of them.
The vast majority of these complaints – 90% – were about delays and cancellations, and three-quarters of them were resolved.
The results are mixed, however, when passengers did get a decision in their favour they received compensation within 30 days of providing their bank details.
How to claim compensation
The first step is to contact your airline directly to make a complaint. Free template letters are available online from organisations including Which?, and you should be able to find out where to send it to on the airline’s website.
Alternatively, if the process is too complex check out Resolver, which is a free online tool that does the legwork for you.
If you don’t hear back from the airline or are unhappy with its response, then you can escalate the complaint to the relevant ADR scheme or regulator.
The Civil Aviation Authority website has a list of members signed up to each of the schemes and further details on how to make a complaint.
“It was easy to claim and the money came through quickly”
Enterprise architect Rashpal Sidhu put in a compensation claim while he was sitting in the bar waiting for his delayed flight.
He was travelling from Birmingham to Munich with Lufthansa airlines to celebrate his 40th birthday with four friends last year.
“When we got to the airport it said it was delayed by three hours. We checked in and they gave us meal vouchers worth £3.50 each and we headed straight to the restaurant.
“We started drinking and while we were sat around I logged on to the Resolver app and put in a claim to Lufthansa straightaway,” says Rashpal, who comes from Leicestershire.
Within 24 hours he had received an acknowledgement, and a week later the airline said it would pay compensation once it had received his bank details.
“One of the group had dropped out and wasn’t actually there but he was still able to claim the compensation too. We got €250 each – and that was more than the cost of the flights, which were around £170.
“It was really easy to do and the money came through quickly.”
The delay meant that Rashpal had to call ahead to rearrange their minibus transfer as they were travelling on to a music festival in Austria.
“It was easy to sort out, though, and we actually had a great time while we were delayed.
“We bumped into Craig Charles in the airport restaurant as he was DJing at the festival we were going to.”
LILY CANTER writes on personal finance for publications such as The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The TImes