Volcano strands couple in Portugal for a week — is this an “extraordinary” circumstance, or what?

Even though EU 261, Europe’s strict consumer law for air travelers, has an exception for what are called “extraordinary” circumstances, Europe’s big carriers made a big deal about not invoking that clause when the cloud of volcanic ash spread across their airspace earlier this month.

Unless you were David Bray, who couldn’t return to Washington from Lisbon, Portugal, via Frankfurt on Lufthansa.

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“My wife and I are currently stranded in Portugal,” he wrote to me last Monday. “What’s frustrating is flights are entering and departing Portugal for the U.S., but we’re with Lufthansa and they won’t help with rebooking with another carrier to get back to the U.S.”

Paragraph 13 of EU 261 addresses his situation.

Passengers whose flights are cancelled should be able either to obtain reimbursement of their tickets or to obtain re-routing under satisfactory conditions, and should be adequately cared for while awaiting a later flight.

But that’s not what happened.

My wife and I tried both Sunday and Monday to call Lufthansa’s travel offices to try and reschedule — since their website explicitly says not to go to the airport if you’re flight is cancelled.

No one ever answered after the phone rang and rang and we waited and waited. We finally went to the airport and saw in person — they’re just letting the phones ring and not answering. That seems wrong and bad behavior on their part?

Moreover, right now Lufthansa is saying the earliest confirmed flight they can put us on — as our flights were cancelled — is next Monday, April 26.

During that time they’re not going to give any meals or hotel accomodations. I cited 261 but they said this is extraordinary circumstances. I mentioned that I heard they were giving out reimbursements at other airports, they said this was a decision of each Lufthansa airports “operations” and they had decided, for Portugal, not to do this. I asked for a copy of this new policy — they refused to provide a copy. One customer service representative even hung up when I kindly asked for this.

What are your thoughts? I realize this is extrordinary circumstances, but to strand folks for more than week and (1) refuse to try and help them rebook with another airline when flights are leaving/entering Portugal and Spain — and (2) refuse to help subsidize their costs while stuck in Europe — seems awfully pennywise and pound foolish on the part of Lufthansa?

Is there any way I can convince them their interpretation of 261 is wrong? Or that their denial of providing me a copy of this “new policy” not to help with hotel or meals is wrong?

The Lufthansa office in Portugal was interpreting EU 261 to its own advantage, but it was also hurting itself by not accommodating passengers like Bray. I contacted the airline on his behalf.

Interestingly, my Lufthansa contact was stranded in Germany at the same time, and he described the extraordinary efforts to which the airline had gone, at least in that country, to take care of its customers. It didn’t sound as if Lufthansa was falling back on EU 261’s “extraordinary circumstances” provision — even though it probably could have.

On Friday, I heard back from Bray.

Lufthansa successfully did contact us, many thanks for your conversation with them. We were able to catch a return flight home today. We literally landed at Dulles about 1.5 hours ago.

Thanks again for all your help — I salute you!

Thank you. And good work, Lufthansa.

(Photo: BriYYZ/Flickr Creative Commons)