Flight cancelled or delayed? Reasons to be thankful for EU Regulation 261/2004

by Stephen Tall on December 22, 2010

While the Westminster Village is fixated by the Telegraph-hyped furore that Lib Dem ministers don’t always agree with every aspect of Coalition policy (shock, horror etc), the rest of the country is focused on a British obsession bigger even than the media’s predeliction for attaching the suffix ‘-gate’ to a noun: the weather.

Newspaper and TV pictures have been dominated by images of those hoping for a holiday getaway having their hopes dashed and their tempers frayed by the endless queues and chaos at Heathrow and for the Eurostar. Hundreds of thousands of people who had hoped for family reunions or dream holidays now find their plans in tatters. If there’s a part of the year that’s pretty time-critical it’s Christmas — somehow arriving after the festivities misses the point.

There is at least one consolation, and it’s courtesy of the European Union, specifically Regulation 261/2004. I doubt you’ll hear the right-wing media mention it — though you can be sure they’d condemn the EU if it didn’t exist.

Regulation 261/2004 (passed on 11 February, 2004) “established common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding, cancellation, long delay of flights”. Though the severity of this past week’s weather almost certainly means that passengers will not be entitled to the normal EU compensation available for cancelled flights, it does offer considerable consumer reassurance — for example, a guarantee backed by legislation that the airline must offer passengers the choice of a refund for the parts of the ticket they’ve not used, or an alternative route or travelling on a later date.

The legislation also legally obliges airlines — regardless of the reasons for cancellation — to offer assistance to passengers affected by cancelled flights at the airport, including meals and refreshments in reasonable relation to the amount of time they are delayed; two free telephone calls or emails; and overnight hotel accommodation and transfers.

Of course, even if your flight isn’t covered by EU legislation you still have a contract (ie, your ticket) with the airline to get you from A to B. The airline should — if it is following the International Air Transport Association’s ‘Recommended Practice on General Conditions of Carriage’ — offer you the choice of a later flight, an agreed alternative mode of transport or a refund. Most airlines do, but they are not legally obliged to do so. And certainly there is no right to assistance, or to compensation in the event of cancellation owing to non-exceptional circumstances.

So there you have it — a real-life example of the EU offering consumer protection of value to its citizens. Just don’t expact the right-wing media to mention it.

Plebble.com has some very useful information on consumer rights here, and a template letter to airlines to request a refund and/or compensation here.