No compensation for Alitalia bird ingestion


Paul DiFeterici’s recent Alitalia flight from Miami to Rome was delayed by seven hours. “We were given a paper with information to contact Alitalia customer relations for compensation,” he says. He tried calling and writing to the airline, but no luck.

“I haven’t heard from them,” he says. “Would you be able to help me contact the correct people?”

Before we do that, let’s rewind. It’s unusual to be compensated for any kind of airline delay in the States. But European law is different. EU 261 holds airlines responsible for many lengthy delays. And that’s why Alitalia handed out the forms to the passengers on DiFeterici’s flight. It appeared the carrier would have to offer compensation under EU law.

No matter what the final outcome, I thought DiFeterici was owed a straight answer. But he wasn’t getting one.

I emailed to address given, and received an automatic response. I tried calling by phone and each time was given another phone number.

I finally called Delta since they are the partner airline. Again I got the same email.

Why do they give us a letter of apology stating that we will receive compensation and then give us the runaround?

I suggested he send a brief, polite email to someone higher up at Delta and Alitalia. Unfortunately, Delta just referred him back to Alitalia, and Alitalia’s email addresses bounced.

So I contacted Alitalia on DiFeterici’s behalf.

An Alitalia representative contacted me almost immediately and said the airline had fixed its email problem. And then the passenger received a formal, written response.

We sincerely regret to learn of the inconvenience you experienced when traveling with Alitalia from Miami to Rome on September 20, 2011.


Our records show that flight AZ631 was delayed due the incoming flight from Rome was returned to the airport after take off as a result of bird ingestion in the engine. A change of aircraft and crew was required which resulted in heavy delays.

Please allow us to explain that, despite the rigorous maintenance schedules to which our aircraft are routinely subject, and our commitment to on-time performance, unexpected occasions arise which result in delays and cancellations.

We fully realize the frustration caused by these flight irregularities, however under EU Regulation 261/2004 the carrier is not obliged to pay compensation when the delay and/or cancellation is a result of conditions beyond the airline’s control (i.e. weather, strikes, technical problems, etc).

When a flight is delayed or canceled due to technical reasons, as was the case with the flights of September 201, 2011, it is being done for the safety of all passengers. Since these disruptions are beyond our control, we do not provide compensation, amenities or reimburse any additional expenses incurred during trip. Consequently, we must respectfully decline your request for compensation and trust you will understand our position in this regard.

Let’s go straight to the rule to see what the airline is referring to. You’ll find it in paragraph 14.

As under the Montreal Convention, obligations on operating air carriers should be limited or excluded in cases where an event has been caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken. Such circumstances may, in particular, occur in cases of political instability, meteorological conditions incompatible with the operation of the flight concerned, security risks, unexpected flight safety shortcomings and strikes that affect the operation of an operating air carrier.

Did AZ631 really suffer a bird ingestion? I don’t know how to verify that, or how EU regulators would. As far as I can tell, Alitalia is on the honor system to tell the truth about whatever “extraordinary” circumstances delay its flights.

“I still don’t understand why they gave us that paper if they had no intention of honoring their policy,” says DiFeterici.

Neither do I.

(Photo: qua s/Flickr)


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • TonyA_says

    You were handed the piece of paper because Article 14 of EC261/2004 says:

    Obligation to inform passengers of their rights

    2. An operating air carrier denying boarding or cancelling a
    flight shall provide each passenger affected with a written
    notice setting out the rules for compensation and assistance in
    line with this Regulation. It shall also provide each passenger
    affected by a delay of at least two hours with an equivalent
    notice. The contact details of the national designated body
    referred to in Article 16 shall also be given to the passenger in
    written form.

    The poll states that Alitalia “promised” to pay some compensation under EC261. I don’t read any evidence the OP was actually promised compensation. I don’t think that handing one a form is a promise to pay. Hard to vote because of this.

  • y_p_w

    It sounds to me as if they handed out the forms as a courtesy before they had a final determination on what caused the malfunction.  If it were a bird ingestion, that would clearly be an issue that normally is unavoidable and not the fault of the airline.  I would guess that they would have been required to provide compensation if it were a typical maintenance issue and not a bird strike.  However, it sounded more like a contact sheet than a promise that they would pay up.

    I’d be interested in what was on that sheet.  Was it really a promise that they would pay, or a note that the passenger could seek compensation in the event that the delay was the fault of Alitalia?

    As for bird ingestion, I remember taking a materials science class in college.  The prof was talking about the materials used for modern jet engines (I think they were called superalloys) and that the standard testing technique on prototypes was to release a frozen chicken or turkey into a running engine.  It might not have been frozen, but it was definitely some kind of poultry.

  • y_p_w

    I’ve luckily never been part of a bird ingestion.  I understand that birds are a serious issue at most airports where the results can be life threatening.

    I have had some flights that were delayed for almost an eternity after we’d already boarded the plane.  I remember I specifically booked an early flight out of a less convenient airport because it would get me to Phoenix about 90 minutes earlier to work at my company’s office in the area.  Then they tried to start the engines but couldn’t because they couldn’t shunt off the cabin air intake, which they needed to do in order to get enough air to engines to start them.

    I guess the strangest was on an international flight where we taxied all the way to the takeoff position, waited there for about 10 minutes, then headed back to the terminal.  At least they provided sandwiches, although I was hungry enough for seconds, but there weren’t any left due to members of the Canadian national basketball team eating more given their size and caloric demands as athletes.

  • Yeah, sucks for the OP to have hopes of being compensated and going through all the time-consuming hoops only to be told “sorry”… But in the long run, it should probably just be chalked up to bad luck. Thankfully he didn’t have a connection to make / miss… Recently, my Cathay flight in Tokyo was delayed for 1.5 hours and I got a 500 yen voucher. I was strangely happy even though 500 yen was only half what I needed to buy a meal… So sad.

    http://www.dreamtravelblog.wordpress.com

  • sirwired

    I would not expect any airline to pay up because of bird ingestion, an ATC delay, weather delay, or other such issue.  Contract law aside, that’s just not reasonable.

    On the other hand, here’s a vote for a resurrection of the “flat-tire” rule, so passengers can be delayed for their own “force-majeure” events.

  • LostinTravel

    There was a story in school about the airplane windshields being tested breaking too often – the reply was that the test was being done wrong – need to defrost the turkey first.  I would postulate that the bird needs to be defrosted for the engine test too.  And after clearing the vacuum hose from cleaning up after my pet birds, I can tell you that the feathers alone will create havoc!

  • NoJets

    The poll question is confusing. It sounds like they were given a paper explaining their rights and Alitalia’s customer service contacts, and somehow this was perceived as a promise of compensation.

    In the US, bird strikes are reported to the FAA. http://wildlife-mitigation.tc.faa.gov/wildlife/default.aspx While this is a voluntary report to the FAA, it may be useful if a similar situation happened in the US. 

    Perhaps there are similar sites for other countries. I found this for Italy, there is no mention of Sept. 20, but it may not be a comprehensive list. http://web.tiscali.it/birdstrike/

  • LostinTravel

    Even though the voucher had a small value, it sounds like you felt good to be offered a gift as an acknowledgement that something was amiss.  That sort of small act is exactly what most airlines forget, yet it changes one’s feelings so easily.  Maybe it is sad that such a small gesture makes one happy, probably becaue it happens so infrequently. But one should celebrate even the little joys in travel !

  • I was on a BA flight when the oxygen masks deployed and scared the FAs more than the passengers. Upon arrival to LHR we  were handed forms to fill by BA Customer Services. I handed in mine, must have been a few months now and no response. I do not think BA ever intended to compensate anyone, the flight was not delayed or diverted. Since it was a night flight most people went back to sleep. IFE was down and we had breakfast in a forest of dangling plastic masks.

    BA and most other airlines go through the motions of being customer aware with no intention of taking the process any further.

    Very sad.

  • Karen Pszonka

    Mr. DiFeterici could appeal to the national aviation authorities, they are the ones in charge of EU 261.  In 2010 I had an issue with Delta from Paris and when Delta dragged their feet and said they didn’t owe me anything I contacted the French authorities.  They were incredibly helpful and while Delta ignored me, it didn’t ignore them.  Information on who to contact can be found here http://ec.europa.eu/transport/passengers/air/air_en.htm

  • Bernard Rappoport

    A Small Claims Court judge might see that piece of paper as a promise to pay…wouldn’t hurt to file…99% chance nobody from AZ will show up (their DSM? Station Manager at MIA?)….so would win by default and could then execute the judgment at this most inopportune time (i.e. a few days before Christmas) which would get their attention to fork over some cash

  • goldenretrievermom

    Alitalia has been known for it’s lousy service. Here’s a situation we experienced.  We were flying “first class,” I put that in quotes, as you will see why, and I spilled tomato juice (ok, with vodka) on my lap.  The seating for this class from London was to take 3 seats up front, and make them into two. I told the flight attendant and she shoved a wadded up bunch of paper towels at me, and told me to sit somewhere else!  BTW…are they still in bankruptcy protection?

  • TouchyFeely

    Another poorly worded poll.  Where did they promise?

  • What gets me every time is the, “…we sincerely regret…” part.  If it’s in a form letter, how is it sincere?

    Let’s just call it what it is and have the letters say something to the effect of, “Our complete indifference to your problem has managed to escape notice until you contacted our mutual buddy, Chris Elliott, and THANKS SO MUCH for that one!  As a result, we feel we have no choice but to throw you a bone in the hopes you’ll be satisfied with it and go the heck away!”

    I think were the letters to be more honest people would be MUCH more willing to accept them.  

    This OP, though, should have gotten more than he did.  Is there an oversight office in the EU he can contact and complain?  If he’s due compensation, he should be getting it.

  • Michael__K

    Are there any rules or precedents that limit how far a “force majeure” exclusion can cascade?

    In this case it appears from the airline’s explanation that the OP was already 2 segments removed from the original problem.  The aircraft’s preceding flight (AZ631 from MIA->FCO) was delayed 366 mins because the flight preceding that (AZ 630 from FCO->MIA on Sep 19?) ingested a bird…  

    What about subsequent flights on the OP’s aircraft?  Would those delays be designated “outside of the airline’s control” as well?  (It appears AZ631 on Sep 21 was cancelled).

    Clearly, if you are a passenger on the very flight that ingested a bird and are delayed after making an emergency landing, you should count your lucky stars and the exclusion is a slam dunk.  With each passing hour and passing segment though, it seems to me the case becomes much less clear cut…

  • y_p_w

    If it took off and returned to Miami, I would think it might qualify.  Then again, you said it was voluntary.

  • NoJets

    Chris indicated he wasn’t sure how to verify bird strikes. I posted a link that provides information on reported bird strikes both in the US & Italy as well as elsewhere, so no, the flight did not need to take off in Miami. There are also links available for other countries as well.

    If the flight WAS listed, it would confirm Alitalia’s claim. Since it is NOT listed though, it certainly does NOT mean Alitalia was making it up. 

  • y_p_w

    I could imagine a dead and frozen animal getting sucked into a jet engine, but it would probably take an extraordinary (beyond a “mere” bird strike) for that to happen.  It’s not as if aircraft are on the freeway getting stuff thrown up by the tires of the vehicle in front of them.

    Perhaps acrobatic military aircraft taking off in formation, but they only do that in good weather and I doubt they do that in the winter months.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYfQ5MNzrpo

    I always wondered what rocks would do to a jet engine.  Carrier based aircraft have to worry about sucking in salt water, which can’t be good.

  • y_p_w

    I worked with several Italians, and they universally detested Alitalia.  I think they went out of their way to avoid Alitalia whenever they flew home.

    They preferred the US-based carriers even though we think they give lousy service.  I guess that’s how bad they considered Alitalia.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Form the airline’s reply, it sounds like the problem actually occurred in Rome which delayed the flight from Rome to Miami, which subsequently delayed that plane’s return leg back to Rome.  Am I reading that right?

  • Cybrsk8r

    So what did you expect the FA to do?  Send your clothes out to the cleaners?

  • Joe Farrell

    The facts are a little confusing – he was flying FROM Rome to MIA but Alitalia states that the ‘incoming flight’ “was delayed due the incoming flight from Rome was returned to the
    airport after take off as a result of bird ingestion in the engine.”  How can a guy leaning from Rome be delayed by an incoming flight FROM Rome?  

    If the aircraft scheduled to fly from FCO-MIA was an aircraft that was damaged by a bird strike at some out station away from Rome – then – its no covered under the 461 exception – since the FCO-MIA flight is not directly affected by the Bird strike – Alitalia had several hours to locate an additional aircraft or rebook these folks on someone else.

    Look at the logic here – the plane from FCO-MIA is a long range aircraft.  Was it coming from the States or some other place far away from Rome?  Probably so.   Thus – it was beginning at least a 6 hour flight to Rome.   So Alitalia had at least FIVE and probably SEVEN hours before the FCO-MIA departure to see that the FCO-MIA flight would be delayed, and reschedule an aircraft and crew, or re-book these travelers – and they did notthing until the departure time of the flight knowing the airplane was not going to be there. 

    This is CLEARLY a situation to which EU461 is intended to apply.  These folks SHOULD get compensation. 

  • goldenretrievermom

    They were just a tad “gruff,” kind of like your comment.

  • Michael__K

    That’s how I read it too.  

    On flightstats.com one can verify that the overnight Miami to Rome flight (Sep 20-21) *departed* Miami over 6 hours late.  Presumably that was because the originally scheduled aircraft (probably the Rome to Miami flight on Sep 20 that has a status of “unknown” in flightstats) had the bird issue.

    What’s confusing is that Chris’ article states that the OP was delayed travelling from Rome to Miami and Alitalia’s letter makes it sound like he was travelling Miami to Rome.  

    There is no record on flightstats of any flights between Rome & Miami in either direction on Sep 21.  My first guess would be they were cancelled but I can’t rule out that it’s a hiccup with flightstats.

    The flights on Sep 22 were close to schedule in both directions.

  • I double-checked. All the correspondence says Miami to Rome. I’ve fixed the post to clarify that.

  • Lindabator

    Actually, worked for Naval flight station AND a major airline, and I can tell you – bird strikes reek HAVOC!

  • Lindabator

    But as the airline clearly stated, the bird ingestion required a change of aircraft and new crew, which caused a further delay.  So they did do everything they could to remedy the situation – these things do happen, unfortunately.

  • ClareClare

    As an American living in Italy right now, I unfortunately have ZERO difficulty imagining that the Italian FA did that to you–and if you were to call her out on it, betcha anything that she would honestly have NO CLUE why you might think she should have handled it any differently.  Culturally, the concept of “customer service” as WE understand it simply does not exist here, period.  And so when we rightly complain about their outrageous behavior, they are merely mystified and annoyed with us uppity americani who keep bothering them–and they fully expect us to do business with them again in future despite all our whiny kvetching… just shut up and give them your money.

  • Sunnykm

    I wonder if the op had purchased trip insurance would he have been compensated for the delay?

  • Miami510

    I voted no because the bird problem is something similar to weather problem; beyond the airline’s ability to control.
     
    I’d like to address the question of airline honesty by telling a short story:
     
    Years ago, I was on an early morning USAir flight from Miami to Philadelphia.  There was an announcement that due to mechanical problems, the flight was cancelled and all passengers would be put on the next scheduled flight 2 hours later.  This meant I would miss two hours in my office and appointments would have to be rescheduled.
     
    We were the last to leave the boarding area for the waiting area for the next flight when I saw the crew coming off the plane.  As they passed, I asked the captain what the mechanical problem was.  He said there wasn’t a mechanical problem; they need this plane for a flight to St Louis.
     
    During the wait for the next flight I called for the area supervisor for USAir.  First I asked him why the cancellation and he repeated the mechanical failure story.  I then told him the answer I got from the pilot.  He took us aside and apologized (note he didn’t even have to confirm the story) and offered us 50,000 miles each on our frequent flyer accounts. 
     
    Lying %$#&!
     
     

  • ViviWang

    I believe the paper handed out was informational, not a promise to compensate.  But the bad email address and phone run around make me suspicious particularly in light of Chris being able to get an immediate response from Alitalia.  Even if the paper handed out was only information Alitalia is responsibile for making sure the contact information is correct.  I think Alitalia’s actions in providing bad contact information (those forms are printed in bulk so those with legitimate claims get the same run around) and then claiming a bird strike smells very bad but lacking in way to prove the bird strike the OP is out of luck.

  • scapel

    I would think if an aircraft had to return to  an airport because of problems then there would be paper work present. Now who is privy to that paper work? If it was a bird strike, I would be happy we did not crash. If it was due to mechanical problems due to operations and mechanical neglect, then a compensation would be in order. The pilot usually would report the actual incident whatever it was without prejudice.

  • flutiefan

    and i’d like to rebut with my own issue of airline honesty:
     i have never ever knowingly lied to a passenger. i am given information and that is what i pass on. i don’t ever make something up.

  • MarkieA

    I was having trouble with this, too. The first line of the article states that the OP was traveling from Rome to Miami.; however, the airline’s response indicates a flight from Miami to Rome. And then the poor wording of, ”
    Our records show that flight AZ631 was delayed due the incoming flight from Rome was returned to the airport after take off as a result of bird ingestion in the engine.” I assume the OP’s flight was AZ631?

  • MarkieA

    Please don’t tell me that you expected to be compensated for the “trauma” of having the oxygen masks deploy. It sounds like your experience was a non-event and was, thus, handled by the airline as such.

  • MarkieA

    Really? You’re a lawyer, right? Please, can’t we experience any inconveniences in life without looking to sue someone?

  • S E Tammela

    Regardless of whether it was beyond their control they are obligated to provide food, accommodation and 2 phone calls/emails. Did they even do that much?

  • gromit82

    If a flight is delayed, and if the passengers are entitled to compensation — I’m not saying that they are entitled to compensation, I’m saying “if” — then an airline ought to be proactive and send out the compensation itself without expecting the customers to make the claims. After all, everyone on board the plane experiences the same delay, and the airline has a record of the delay and should have contact information for all the passengers on the plane. That would be a better use of everyone’s time than expecting 100 passengers to submit 100 separate claims for compensation.

  • TonyA_says

    Unfortunately the system does not work this way. If it does then all deadbeat dads would simply pay up and not be wanted by the police. Getting justice and compensation requires knowledge and often times an advocate or a lawyer to get anything.

  • TonyA_says

    Chris, Alitalia admitted that AZ631 departed Miami (MIA) very late because it was on a turn-around aircraft that landed late in Miami from Rome  (flight AZ630) due to an alleged bird strike.

    The key to understanding whether Alitalia is liable for paying EUR600 compensation is whether the delay of AZ631 itself is caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken.

    The bird strike caused the delay of AZ630 directly but it had only a knock on effect on AZ631. I would think that scheduling and dispatch of aircraft are inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier concerned and are within its actual control. Alitalia already knew that AZ631 would be late even before 10AM of 20SEP USA Eastern Time. That was at least 8 hours prior to scheduled departure.The fact that an airline decides to create a flight schedule based on aircraft turn-arounds does not exempt them from delay or cancellation compensation provisions of EC261.

    The OP should file a case with:
    L’Ente Nazionale per l’Aviazione Civile
    Viale del Castro Pretorio, 118
    IT – 00185 ROME

    Tel. : +39 06 44596-1
    Fax : +39 06 44596493
    cartadiritti@enac.gov.it

  • Debbie Lott

    I admit it… when I read the headline, I originally thought it had to do with airplane food.

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