EU 261.

Mention the word to an airline employee, and you’re likely to get one of the following responses:

“We’re not going to talk about that.”

“No comment.”

“Sorry. Try getting in touch with IATA.”

Those are actual answers, the latter referring me to the International Air Transport Association, a trade association for the airline industry. But my all-time favorite reaction came when I was touring the operations center of a certain airline that shall remain nameless. As we passed by the department that handled EU enforcement issues, I asked if I could talk with them about EU 261.

“We’re not saying anything about that,” an airline spokeswoman said, prodding me to keep moving before I made a scene.

So what is it about EU 261 that makes airlines so skittish?

“It’s contentious,” says Steven Lott, a spokesman for IATA. “And it’s confusing.”

It’s also worth knowing what’s in EU 261 if you plan to fly to Europe this summer. EU 261 is a five-year-old law that establishes common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding and of cancellation or long delay of flights.

Make no mistake, this is Europe’s equivalent of Rule 240 , the controversial contract provision that domestic airlines love to hate.

Maybe the best way to start understanding EU 261 is by understanding what it’s not. Which is to say, it is not what it claims to be, at least according to the airlines.

Take what happened to Dave Lubbe, whose recent flight from London to Philadelphia in US Airways was delayed because of the volcanic ash cloud. Lubbe, a contract analyst from Hainesport, N.J., was stuck in the British capital three days.

“During this time we incurred the cost of three additional days in a hotel, three additional days of meals, and three additional days of parking,” he says. “These costs do not include the three additional vacation days my wife and I had to unexpectedly use.” That added up to nearly $1,000 in out-of-pocket expenses to the couple.
US Airways wouldn’t respond to my questions about EU 261, but it answered Lubbe’s.

“Your flight was canceled in compliance with the mandates halting all air travel in the affected areas,” it responded in an e-mail. “We are unable to honor the request you have made for reimbursement of incidental expenses and compensation because the cancellation was not within our control.”

All of which brings us to the first thing you absolutely must know about EU 261: the “extraordinary circumstances” loophole. Article 1, Paragraph 12 of the law offers an escape hatch for airlines, letting them off the hook “when the cancellation occurs in extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken.”

Airlines have have defined “extraordinary” in its broadest possible terms — including preventable mechanical delays and crew problems. Even though an EU court ruled against that interpretation, airlines have continued to push the limit on what constitutes “extraordinary.”

Here’s something else you need to know: the law may apply to you even if you aren’t in Europe. I’ve heard some airlines tell passengers that EU 261 can’t be invoked because their trip originated in the United States. That’s hogwash. Check out Paragraph 6, which states, “The protection accorded to passengers departing from an airport located in a Member State should be extended to those leaving an airport located in a third country for one situated in a Member State, when a Community carrier operates the flight.”

In other words, as long as you’re headed to Europe, you have EU 261 on your side.

So what does the rule entitle you to? Article 7 addresses that question. For delays, you might get paid anywhere between 250 to 600 Euros. For cancellations, you’re entitled to a refund or a flight that works for you. Not vouchers.
Not frequent flier miles. Cold, hard, cash. (See Article 1, Paragraph 13: “Passengers whose flights are canceled should be able either to obtain reimbursement of their tickets or to obtain rerouting under satisfactory conditions, and should be adequately cared for while awaiting a later flight.”)

When something happens with a flight in the US, and you’re stuck at the airport, you’re typically at the mercy of an airline. Not so in Europe. Article 9 requires carriers to provide meals and refreshments in a reasonable relation to your wait time, and free hotel accommodations if there’s an overnight delay. In addition, it must cover the costs of transportation to the hotel and the cost of two phone calls.

Finally, EU 261 forces airlines to keep their passengers posted on their rights. “Passengers should be fully informed of their rights in the event of denied boarding and of cancellation or long delay of flights, so that they can effectively exercise their rights,” it says in Article 1, Paragraph 20.

Airlines would probably prefer you didn’t know that extraordinary circumstances isn’t whatever they want it to be. They don’t want you to know EU 261 applies to flights outside of Europe, or what you’re entitled to if your flight is delayed or canceled.

They certainly don’t want you to be too informed, and that includes actually reading the law.
It’s unlikely the newest proposed passenger rights rules here in the States will ever be as robust as Europe’s. But even if they are, it’s not too difficult to imagine the airline industry finding another “extraordinary circumstance” loophole it can fly through.

If we let them.

(Photo: S torm Crypt/Flickr Creative Commons)