As European airlines master their poker face, we’re calling their bluff

By | August 30th, 2016

Mary Lynn Oglesbee was scheduled to fly from Venice, Italy, to Dubrovnik, Croatia, on Spanish low-cost carrier Volotea. But the airline had other plans.

After a four-hour delay, gate agents announced that the flight was canceled, and no provisions would be made for passengers. According to Oglesbee, the airline provided no assistance in finding alternate flights.

Passengers in the European Union can sometimes find a silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud of flight delays and cancellations: If the reason for the delay or cancellation is within the control of the airline, passengers have the right to compensation under a regulation called EC 261, also known as the EU Passenger Bill of Rights.

But lately, it seems that European airlines are putting up more resistance to simple claims for compensation under the regulation. Oglesbee’s case should have been a slam dunk, but it wasn’t. It leaves us wondering if the need for our involvement in the claims process is the symptom of a difficult compensation trend for travelers.

According to Volotea, Oglesbee’s flight was canceled “as a result of an unexpected technical issue potentially compromising the safety of flight.” While the airline admits it “had no choice but to cancel the flight,” it also claims that the problem was unforeseen, and therefore, excluded from the compensation structure afforded by EC 261.

That’s what they’d like us to believe, anyway.

There are exceptions to the compensation rules, but they involve situations outside of the control of the airline. These “extraordinary circumstances” must be unpredictable, unavoidable and external. Bad weather, a bird strike or other “acts of God” can provide cover for airlines that must delay or cancel flights.

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Mechanical problems are notably not considered extraordinary circumstances and do not get the airline off the hook for EC 261 compensation.

For short-haul flights such as the Venice-Dubrovnik route, cancellation compensation is set at 250 euros per passenger. In some circumstances, however, that compensation barely covers the inconvenience factor.


And Oglesbee’s cancellation was a colossal inconvenience. Because there were no other flights from Venice to Dubrovnik, Oglesbee traveled five hours by train to Ancona, Italy, where she purchased expensive last-minute tickets to Dubrovnik on Lufthansa.

So why would Volotea try to throw up this “unforeseen technical issue” smoke screen? Because it can.

Make no mistake — these air carriers are playing mind games. The airline is completely responsible for the maintenance of its aircraft, and pretending that maintenance is out of its control is disingenuous at best.

Adding that the cancellation was done in the interest of safety is that spoonful of sugar they’d like you to swallow along with the rest. Safety sounds good. Who is against safety? Surely not you, you money-hungry passenger!

Unless passengers call their bluff — take them to court, complain to regulating authorities or write to a consumer advocate — airlines will continue denying claims when they shouldn’t. After all, paying claims cuts into their bottom line. If the airline only pays 10 claims instead of the 100 that should have resulted in automatic compensation, that’s a 90 percent savings. And that claims director will keep his job.

When Oglesbee filed her claim for compensation with Volotea, it was denied. When we first wrote to Volotea, the airline ignored us. And when we raised the issue with a Volotea executive, “after further review,” the airline agreed to pay Oglesbee’s 500-euro claim.

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Whether this is a trend across all airlines or only among low-cost carriers remains to be seen. Recently, our team has handled similar inappropriate denials on Swiss, Ryanair and La Compagnie, all low-cost carriers.

If you find yourself in Oglesbee’s shoes, don’t let these airlines fool you. Your understanding of the plain language of the regulation is correct. You’re owed what you’re owed. It might just take a nudge from our advocates to get it done.

Should airlines be sanctioned for improper denials of EC 261 claims?

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  • sirwired

    Well, AA owes me 600EUR ea. for two tickets on a cancelled flight (due to a mechanical) from LHR to the US. In response to a claim sent to their EU261 e-mail, all I’ve gotten so far is a form-letter response, and that took 11 days.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    While it is better for you to get all of OP’s compensation, for those with less persistance, are there companies that will advocate for this money for a share? I thought I saw a reference to such companies at one point on this site.

  • Michael__K

    This list is probably not complete, but the companies you can try include: RefundMe, AirHelp, EUclaim, GreenClaim, Claimair, and Bott&Co

  • Michael__K

    Carriers can face sanctions from EU National Enforcement Bodies for systemic improper denials (see for example here). But in practice, it apparently takes an awful lot of systemic abuse just to get a consent order with no fines for prior misconduct.

  • Michael__K

    Even if the operating carrier can legitimately claim “extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken”, they are still on the hook for Article 9 “Right to Care” compensation, which includes meals, hotel, transport between the airport and the hotel, and 2 phone calls or emails per day.

    The first step is to write to the operating carrier seeking compensation. If they still don’t meet their obligations after 6 weeks, the next step is to file the Air Passenger Rights EU Complaint Form with the National Enforcement Body for the country where the incident occurred:

    http://ec.europa.eu/transport/themes/passengers/air/doc/2004_261_national_enforcement_bodies.pdf

    The NEB’s can’t force the carrier to compensate you, but they do track complaints and can eventually hold carriers accountable for widespread abuse.

    If the carrier still doesn’t offer the compensation owed in response to an NEB complaint, the last step is to use a for-profit company (such as RefundMe, AirHelp, EUclaim, GreenClaim, Claimair, or Bott&Co). which will litigate claims for passengers for a commission.

    Unfortunately, most of these companies will only pursue Article 7 compensation, but not Article 9 (Right to Care) compensation.

  • AJPeabody

    When there is no penalty for ignoring a rule, it will be ignored. The worst that can happen to a recalcitrant airline is paying very late what should have been paid immediately. The proper claims that are abandoned by frustrated passengers fund the vice president for denying valid claims, with a tidy profit left over.

  • Rebecca

    There should be a penalty added, based on a timetable. I would think that would motivate them. The for-profit companies, like the ones Michael_K linked, would certainly pursue these fines, as it’s a win for them as well as the consumer.

    Denials that occur repeatedly really need to be punished further. If the airline knows there isn’t going to be a monetary penalty and it will take years before anything happens, all the while they’re denying claims the vast majority of which will never be paid, of course they’re going to deny as many as possible.

    I wonder too how many passengers that are actually due compensation just give up after the first form denial? I’m guessing it’s a pretty significant amount.

  • Steve Rabin

    I think the EU carriers really hate EU261 (and the carriers from outside the EU who fly from EU airports hate it even more), and they will not pay unless they are absolutely forced to. By saying it is a ‘safey’ related issue probably prevents many people from making claims, even though the safety issue was a mechanical problem, definitely within the airline’s responsibility.

  • Steve Rabin

    I’m betting you will have to fight for compensation. Airlines from outside the EU have tried claiming they are exempt from EU261, even though they are included (ex-EU airlines are not covered when flying TO the EU, but EU airlines are in both directions). I don’t think there is much the EU authorities can or will do to non-EU airlines, so keep fighting for your compensation.

  • CasaAlux

    This is why I always suggest to people to use a service like refund.me to pursue these claims – yes, they keep a percentage of the claim, but they will fight it all the way to the courts, and don’t give up; for my money it’s worth it. They fought with Ryanair on my behalf and eventually, after 15 months, got the EU261 payment. It went to court, and Ryanair lost of course. Alone, I would have been highly unlikely to pursue it all the way to the courts, since I would have needed to appear personally in Dublin, and Ryanair knew that, hence the fact they just blew off my claims when I initially tried to do it myself.

  • John Grier

    here we go again. Let’s take off with an unairworthy aircraft, crash & kill everyone on board + people on the grounds. No wonder Europe is at war.

  • John Grier

    but you are alive !!!

  • John Grier

    & like all dodgy lawyers, they will try & take a huge %.

  • John Grier

    the EU is probably going to collapse soon, thank goodness, especially tourism to there. Who wants to go to a war zone ? Airlines will be cutting flights. Which airlines will collapse 1st ?

  • John Grier

    how can some dodgy judge decide if an aircraft is safe to fly, ie. airworthy. Parts break. The best serviced aircraft still has parts that break, when not expected to. It’s called life. Get over it.

  • John Grier

    the real penalty, should be death or at least jail for all those ambulance chasing lawyers.

  • Michael__K

    That would be far more costly, besides the fact that the pilots get the final say.

    The regulation has been in effect for more than a decade. About 900 million passengers a year are carried by air in the EU-28 (and that doesn’t even include Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland, which have also adopted EC 261). How many times has your horrific scenario come to pass?

  • Michael__K

    In most cases the customer has nothing to lose because typically there is no fee unless the claim is successful. Most of these companies charge a 25% commission (some include VAT in their quoted commission, some charge it separately).

  • LonnieC

    Cheap shot. They should work for free? And what about the many cases they handle that are unsuccessful and for which they get no payment for their time and knowledge?

  • LonnieC

    Got a problem with lawyers?

  • LonnieC

    Got a problem with judges, too?

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