Delayed 23 hours on Emirates, waited two years for a refund — and now, a press release?

If it took me two years to resolve a case — a long, complicated and painful case — I probably wouldn’t issue a press release. But that’s exactly what refund.me just did.

Its actions have prompted a lot of soul-searching about justice, European consumer regulations and pay-to-play organizations that help.

Let’s start with the press release.

Passengers win compensation from Emirates for marathon flight delay following two-year battle

  • Passengers on Emirates flight endured 23-hour flight delay
  • Airline tried to exploit ‘extraordinary circumstance’ loophole
  • Two-year battle for compensation
  • Case study in how airlines try to avoid compensation pay-outs

The process of claiming compensation for flight delays is not for the faint-hearted, as two Australian passengers have discovered. When Brett and Lisa Smith’s flight from Milan to New York was delayed more than 23 hours, they thought that their case for compensation under European Union legislation would be a simple matter. They were wrong.

Under EU 261/2004 compensation rules, passengers whose flight is cancelled or arrives more than three hours late can claim up to €600 (£473) depending on the distance of the flight. The compensation rules apply to flights departing from any EU airport (including Iceland, Norway or Switzerland) or arriving in the EU with an EU carrier.

The couple, booked on flight EK 205 from Milan Malpensa to New York (JFK) in April, 2014 experienced a long ‘creeping delay.’ After check-in, they were advised the flight would be delayed by three hours or so. After finally boarding, passengers were told that the engine technical issue could not be fixed after all, and a part needed to be flown in from Dubai the following day.

Passengers were deplaned, returned through immigration, collected their bags, and transported to a hotel. Nearly 24 hours later, the exhausted passengers were finally on their way to New York.

The couple lost a day of their holiday, along with the cost of one night’s hotel accommodation, theatre tickets and dinner reservation, all of which was prebooked, prepaid, and nonrefundable.

Sound familiar? Yes, we’ve helped many air travelers with similar requests. Basically, airlines try to find clever ways around EU 261, such as declaring that the cause of delay was an “extraordinary” circumstance.

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Moving along …

Airlines are expected to inform passengers of their right to compensation in the event of lengthy delays. An estimated 11 million people per year in Europe alone are eligible to claim for €6 billion in compensation for flight disruptions under European Union (EC) 261 legislation. At no point during the 23-hour saga were the Smiths advised that they were eligible for compensation.

When Mr. Smith, a frequent Emirates flyer, later contacted the airline, Emirates rejected the claim. The airline stated that the matter had been investigated by ENAC, the Italian Civil Aviation Authority, and ENAC had ruled that the delay was due to ‘extraordinary circumstances’ and Emirates was therefore not obliged to pay compensation.

When Emirates provided no evidence of either the investigation or ruling, Mr. Smith decided to contact refund.me , the air passenger rights company that advocates for travellers.

Let’s skip right to the end. After two years, including a lot of paperwork, refund.me secured “full compensation” of €600 each for the Smiths.

Well, almost. Refund.me charges a commission “as low as 15 percent” when it gets your money.

I’m happy for the Smiths and for refund.me. If I issued a press release whenever I secured a refund for consumers, I would be doing nothing but writing press releases.

But still, I get it. Refund.me fought hard and it wants to be recognized for its work.

“This case illustrates just how far airlines will go in an attempt to fob off passengers,” says Eve Büchner, Founder and CEO of refund.me. “The majority of passengers either don’t know their rights, or do not have the time, nerve or money to jump through the endless hurdles airlines put up in an attempt to force passengers to abandon their case.”

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That’s just one takeaway. For me, it illustrates the disconnect between consumer regulation and reality. It’s a reality that has allowed companies like refund.me to flourish and, to be fair, have allowed this site to grow.

I’ve always said that the world needs more consumer advocates, but there’s something about pay-to-play services like Airhelp and refund.me that makes me uncomfortable. It’s not them — it’s that they’re even necessary.

In a perfect world, everyone would have access to the kind of legal services offered by refund.me. And in a perfect world, they could keep every cent of what the airline paid them.

Unlike refund.me, we don’t bring in $1 million in annual revenue and employ 40 people. I’m lucky to work with a team of volunteers who help me advocate worthy causes, and we never charge anyone for our service.

Is that any better? No.

Ideally, none of this would be necessary. And when it isn’t, that’ll be the day I issue a press release. Because that’ll be a day worth celebrating.

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. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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