Iberia advised us of our “passengers’ rights,” but then ignored them all

Occasionally our advocates encounter cases, like Beth Agnew’s, that make us want to beat our heads against the wall in frustration.

Agnew and her husband had booked tickets for premium class seats on Level, an affiliate of Iberia Airlines. But they found themselves flying the next day on American Airlines in standard economy class.

A canceled flight

Iberia advised the Agnews that they may be entitled to compensation for their canceled flight and involuntary downgrade under the European consumer protection law EU 261 but then refused to issue it.

Unfortunately, the Agnews’ story is yet another instance of airlines availing themselves of a loophole in EU 261 that exempts them from owing compensation to passengers in “extraordinary circumstances” – a term that airlines appear to be applying indiscriminately, often inappropriately.

Agnew and her husband had booked tickets for premium class tickets on Level from Oakland, Calif., to Barcelona. While the Agnews waited in the Oakland airport to board the flight, Level’s gate agents announced that the flight was canceled. The gate agents gave the passengers copies of a one-page document titled “Passengers’ Rights in the Event of Denied Boarding and of Cancellation or Long Delay of Flights.”

EU 261 compensation?

The document indicated that according to EU 261, passengers who experience re-routings of flights that arrive four or more hours later than originally scheduled are entitled to 600 euros ($708) in compensation for the delay. It also mentioned that passengers whose seating is involuntarily downgraded from premier to economy class are entitled to reimbursement of 30 to 75 percent of the ticket price, depending on the length of the flight.

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Iberia rebooked the Agnews on an American Airlines flight to Barcelona, departing the following day from Oakland with a connection in Chicago. (Level’s website contains a notation at the bottom of its homepage which indicates that “flights sold under the Level name are operated by Iberia and are subject to the Iberia conditions of carriage.”)

A rejection letter

The Agnews then filed a claim for EU 261 compensation with Iberia, which denied it:

Please accept my apologies for the inconvenience caused by the cancellation of your flight. We are aware of how important it is to our passengers that trips observe the scheduled time, which is why we make every effort to prevent this from occurring.

On this occasion, we were forced to cancel the flight due to a fault that our technicians had to repair to ensure the safety of your flight. As it was an extraordinary circumstance that we could not prevent, despite taking all the measures at our disposal, [the cancellation circumstances] do not establish any compensation.

With regard to the compensation you request for having voluntarily agreed to travel on [an] alternative flight in economy class, I am writing to inform you that regulations do not consider this matter for compensation.

I have checked the fare that you paid and the one you finally used, but I regret to inform [you] that [there] is no difference to be [reimbursed].

Extraordinary circumstances

Because there is no language in EU 261 that clearly defines “extraordinary circumstances,” airlines subject to EU 261 have been using the term to exempt themselves from paying compensation for delays, cancellations and incidental expenses arising out of situations that don’t seem to qualify.

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There’s nothing “extraordinary” about technical faults — and every reason to believe that Iberia could have prevented the circumstances that led it to cancel the Agnews’ flight. Iberia’s suggestion that a technical issue relieves them of any obligation to compensate the passengers who were delayed, re-routed and downgraded insults their — and our — intelligence. So does the suggestion that there is no price difference between the premium seats the Agnews purchased and the economy seats they sat in on the replacement flight.

Even the European Union Court of Justice has indicated in a recent ruling that technical problems do not fall under the definition of “extraordinary circumstances.”

The Agnews might have escalated their complaint to higher-ranking executives of Iberia using the contact information on our website. Instead, they asked our advocates to help them recover the compensation they were due under EU 261 from Iberia.

The bad news

Our advocacy director, Michelle Couch-Friedman reached out to Iberia on the Agnews’ behalf. Although our contacts at Iberia twice promised to investigate their case, the airline reiterated its refusal to issue any compensation to the Agnews. Friedman suggested that the Agnews file a complaint with the European Commission in Spain, which can sanction Iberia for wrongfully denying their claim.

We hate having to treat the Agnews’ story as a Case Dismissed, but Iberia’s stonewalling leaves us with no choice. The best we can hope for is that the European Union will come up with a clearer definition of the term “extraordinary circumstances” and come down hard on airlines that improperly avail themselves of this loophole with stiff penalties.

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

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