What would you do? No refund for a canceled Air Baltic flight

Editor’s note: I’m introducing a new feature — “What would you do?” — today. Here’s how it works: At 7 a.m. Eastern time, I present a case and ask you how you’d solve it. You can take a poll or sound off in the comments. At 5 p.m., I’ll reveal the poll results and tell you how it was resolved.

Sirje Viise and a friend were scheduled to fly from Tallinn, Estonia to Berlin by way of Riga on Air Baltic. They had booked their airline tickets through Expedia.

But something happened between Estonia’s capital and Germany. Viise believes an overbooking problem led to her delay at a stopover in Riga, and after some haggling with ticket agents, she and her companion were instructed to buy two new tickets on EasyJet for 256 euro each.

European law is clear about the compensation to which Viise is entitled in an overbooking situation: 2,000 euros for the two delayed flights and a refund for her unused connecting flight. But Air Baltic, whose slogan, interestingly, is “We Care,” had other ideas.

The airline says it rebooked the two on an SAS flight the next day, which they didn’t take. What’s more, it says EU doesn’t apply since they weren’t denied boarding because of an overbooking problem, but because of circumstances “beyond their control” — which is legalese for a force majeure event outside the airline’s control or responsibility.

Which is a little odd, says Viise. While it’s true that Air Baltic initially sent her to an SAS flight, it later told her to buy the EasyJet tickets, with assurances that she’d get a refund for her unused flight from Riga to Berlin. She even has a signed and stamped paper ticket from Air Baltic with a notation to that effect.

During her trip, in fact, Air Baltic wasn’t shooting straight about the circumstances of her delay.

As we stood there waiting for the customer service or manager they’d called over, gate agents spoke to one another and on the phone in Estonian about the problem being that we were all overbooked and a strange mistake had been made with the booking.

When I asked about this new information in Estonian and English, they refused to speak to us, and switched to Russian when they spoke to each other at all (I don’t speak Russian). Clearly, they knew more about what was going on than they were willing to tell us.

So, to recap: Air Baltic gets Viise and her travel companion from Tallinn to Riga, but because the connection to Berlin is overbooked, and because the next available flight isn’t until tomorrow, they tell her to buy new tickets on EasyJet. They promise her a refund on the two original tickets from Riga to Berlin on Air Baltic.

Then they deny her a refund on the Air Baltic tickets, insisting she refused to take their rebooked flights.

We already know that European airlines try to weasel their way out of following EU 261. I can also tell you from personal experience that the law isn’t the clearest, and that passengers and airlines don’t always agree on how to interpret the sometimes-vague provisions.

I can also tell by reading Viise’s extensive paper trail and reviewing her story, that Air Baltic’s story is incomplete, if not inconsistent. There’s no doubt that she had to pay twice for a flight from Riga to Berlin. There’s almost no question that she’s entitled to some compensation under European law.

But what should she do next?

Should she appeal to someone higher up at the airline, asking Air Baltic to reconsider its decision? How about Expedia, the online travel agency through which she purchased the ticket? Does it bear any responsibility? Or should she sue Air Baltic to try to recover the cost of her tickets?

What would you do?

In a survey of more than 500 readers, a majority said they’d contact Expedia.

But that’s not what Viise did.

We took them to court.

Two years later, we have finally won a smaller settlement than we tried for, and were awarded about 650 euros which covers the cost of our tickets and a small award on top (the total is under the current EU award guidelines for such cases).

Luckily, we own legal insurance which covers legal fees, otherwise we would have had to pay thousands.

The lawyers for AirBaltic were horrendous, launching plenty of personal attacks at us and pulling every trick in the book to change judges, change jurisdictions, change facts, lie, cover up, dismiss, blame us — you name it. We had to compromise on a smaller settlement just so that the case would not be able to go to a higher court, and get dragged on another two years.

We’re glad we stuck to it, but cannot express our disgust at the way we’ve been treated. We can’t imagine (nor could the judges) why on earth they would rather invest so much money in legal fees rather than pay this relatively minor sum to make the problem go away.

(Photo: virtual Olli Vai nio/Flickr Creative Commons)

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