Many passengers were stranded in airports, foreign cities and countries because of the introduction of restrictive measures of all kinds in almost all countries around the world because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite this exceptional situation, passengers have rights and they must be protected.
The European Union is the only region in the world where citizens have full travel rights – whether by plane, train, ship or bus.
It is clear that the business suffers from enormous pressure in this environment, but nevertheless the carriers must comply with the regulatory requirements. They shall be obliged to restore the value of the tickets or to redirect passengers whose service has been cancelled. In addition, they must provide food and accommodation in the cases provided for in regulatory acts.
In terms of retribution, the rules are different for different modes of transport. In this publication, we will introduce you to your rights as a consumer of air transport in the current situation.
Air passenger rights
Re-routing in the current situation can be quite difficult for a large part of the carriers because of the constant flight cancelations and the introduction of new restrictive measures by governments. In some cases, it is better for passengers to ask for reimbursement.
Where a passenger cannot travel or wants to cancel a journey on his own initiative, the compensation depends entirely on the type of ticket and the relevant terms and conditions of the carrier, i.e. whether he is entitled to reimbursement, partially or as a whole, and whether there is a possibility of re-booking.
However, in the current situation, many passengers are forced to abandon their journey. To maintain the loyalty of their customers, some carriers offer vouchers that they may use for another trip with the same carrier within a time limit set by the carrier.
It is especially important to know from consumers that this is a completely different situation from where the carrier itself cancels the journey and offers only a voucher instead of a choice between reimbursement and redirection.
Offering a voucher is only an option that is given to the customer and does not replace their right to refund the amount.
The right to compensation relates to whether the carrier has informed its passengers in time of any flight schedule disruptions.
In the event of cancellation of a flight by the airlines (no matter what the reason) the carrier shall be obliged to offer passengers a choice between:
a) reimbursement (refund);
b) re-routing at the earliest opportunity, or
c) re-routing at a later date at the passenger's convenience.
If the outbound flight and the return flight are part of the same reservation, even if made by different air carriers, two options shall be offered to passengers if the outbound flight is cancelled: Reimburse the entire ticket (i.e. both flights) or redirect to another flight for the outbound flight.
This is not the case when the two flights are reserved separately and for example the outbound flight is canceled. The passenger is only entitled to reimbursement of the cancelled flight, i.e. here the outbound flight.
In the situation of the Covid-19 pandemic, re-routing as an option can be exceedingly difficult or delayed over time. It is therefore important to consider the following:
Firstly, passengers must be informed of delays and/or uncertainties associated with them when they choose re-routing rather than reimbursement.
Secondly, if the passenger nevertheless chooses a re-routing “the earliest opportunity”, the carrier should be deemed to have fulfilled its obligation to inform, if it communicates, on its own initiative, as soon as possible and timely, of the flight available for redirection.
Passengers who are affected by a flight cancellation must also be offered care by the operating air carrier, free of charge. This consists of meals and refreshments in a reasonable relation to the waiting time; hotel accommodation if necessary, and transport to the place of accommodation. In addition, airports must provide assistance to disabled passengers and passengers with reduced mobility.
It is worth recalling that when the passenger chooses a refund of the full cost of the ticket, the right to care ends. re-routing at a later date at the passenger's convenience.
According to the Regulation, the air carrier is obliged to fulfil the obligation of care even when the cancellation of a flight is caused by extraordinary circumstances, that is to say circumstances that could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken.
According to Regulation 261/2004, a flat-rate compensation is possible under certain circumstances. This shall not apply to an cancelations made more than 14 days ago or where the cancellation is caused by ‘extraordinary circumstances’ which could not be avoided, even if all reasonable measures were taken. For details, see Articles 5(1) and 7 of the Regulation.
The Commission considers that, where public authorities take measures intended to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, such measures are by their nature and origin not inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of carriers and are outside their actual control, i.e. if the cancellation in question is ‘caused’ by ‘extraordinary circumstances’ which could not be avoided, even if all reasonable measures were taken, Article 5(3) waives the right to compensation. This also applies to cases where public authorities directly prohibit certain flights or the movement of persons, which leads to inability to perform the flight.
Where the airline decides to cancel a flight and demonstrate that this decision is justified in order to protect the health of the crew, such cancelations should also be considered ‘caused’ by ‘extraordinary circumstances’.
The rights of passengers in rail transport will be published in the next article of the rubric “Consumer Reader”.