As European airlines master their poker face, we’re calling their bluff

Mary Lynn Oglesbee was scheduled to fly from Venice, Italy, to Dubrovnik, Croatia, on Spanish low-cost carrier Volotea. But the airline had other plans.

After a four-hour delay, gate agents announced that the flight was canceled, and no provisions would be made for passengers. According to Oglesbee, the airline provided no assistance in finding alternate flights.

Passengers in the European Union can sometimes find a silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud of flight delays and cancellations: If the reason for the delay or cancellation is within the control of the airline, passengers have the right to compensation under a regulation called EC 261, also known as the EU Passenger Bill of Rights.

But lately, it seems that European airlines are putting up more resistance to simple claims for compensation under the regulation. Oglesbee’s case should have been a slam dunk, but it wasn’t. It leaves us wondering if the need for our involvement in the claims process is the symptom of a difficult compensation trend for travelers.

According to Volotea, Oglesbee’s flight was canceled “as a result of an unexpected technical issue potentially compromising the safety of flight.” While the airline admits it “had no choice but to cancel the flight,” it also claims that the problem was unforeseen, and therefore, excluded from the compensation structure afforded by EC 261.

That’s what they’d like us to believe, anyway.

There are exceptions to the compensation rules, but they involve situations outside of the control of the airline. These “extraordinary circumstances” must be unpredictable, unavoidable and external. Bad weather, a bird strike or other “acts of God” can provide cover for airlines that must delay or cancel flights.

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Mechanical problems are notably not considered extraordinary circumstances and do not get the airline off the hook for EC 261 compensation.

For short-haul flights such as the Venice-Dubrovnik route, cancellation compensation is set at 250 euros per passenger. In some circumstances, however, that compensation barely covers the inconvenience factor.

And Oglesbee’s cancellation was a colossal inconvenience. Because there were no other flights from Venice to Dubrovnik, Oglesbee traveled five hours by train to Ancona, Italy, where she purchased expensive last-minute tickets to Dubrovnik on Lufthansa.

So why would Volotea try to throw up this “unforeseen technical issue” smoke screen? Because it can.

Make no mistake — these air carriers are playing mind games. The airline is completely responsible for the maintenance of its aircraft, and pretending that maintenance is out of its control is disingenuous at best.

Adding that the cancellation was done in the interest of safety is that spoonful of sugar they’d like you to swallow along with the rest. Safety sounds good. Who is against safety? Surely not you, you money-hungry passenger!

Unless passengers call their bluff — take them to court, complain to regulating authorities or write to a consumer advocate — airlines will continue denying claims when they shouldn’t. After all, paying claims cuts into their bottom line. If the airline only pays 10 claims instead of the 100 that should have resulted in automatic compensation, that’s a 90 percent savings. And that claims director will keep his job.

When Oglesbee filed her claim for compensation with Volotea, it was denied. When we first wrote to Volotea, the airline ignored us. And when we raised the issue with a Volotea executive, “after further review,” the airline agreed to pay Oglesbee’s 500-euro claim.

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Whether this is a trend across all airlines or only among low-cost carriers remains to be seen. Recently, our team has handled similar inappropriate denials on Swiss, Ryanair and La Compagnie, all low-cost carriers.

If you find yourself in Oglesbee’s shoes, don’t let these airlines fool you. Your understanding of the plain language of the regulation is correct. You’re owed what you’re owed. It might just take a nudge from our advocates to get it done.

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Jessica Monsell

A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation's largest plaintiffs' law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.

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