Cloudy with a Chance of Travel Chaos – Passengers rights on cancellation of flights

Not since the Scoil Réalta na Maidine charity town league of 2009 have Ashes caused such a furore around the place, although arguably the ashes from the Icelandic volcano have gotten slightly more international press than the footballing side from Listowel.  For most people the volcanic ash cloud of travel chaos has blown by at this stage.  We do however continue to receive inquiries in relation to “the volcano regulation” and recovering money from air carries for disrupted travel arrangements.  Also, as a new holiday season arrives, travel disruptions are one of the inevitable hazards.  For those whose travel plans do happen to go up in smoke, European Regulation 261/2004 is the best starting point for seeking redress, although there are other avenues available such as claiming under your travel insurance.
Application: The Regulation applies to any passenger departing from any airport in the European Union / European Economic Area. It also applies to passengers departing from outside of the EU/EEA but arriving at an EU/EEA airport on an EU/EEA licensed carrier (unless they have already received compensation or assistance in that third country).  So for example, somebody whose flight from New York to Shannon was cancelled would be entitled to seek to recover money under the regulation if they had travelled with Aer Lingus, but not if they had travelled with an American airline.  The Regulation does not apply to passengers travelling free of charge or at a reduced fare that is not available directly or indirectly to the public (other than frequent flyer programmes).
Entitlements: Passengers whose flights have been cancelled or delayed shall be offered, by the operating air carrier, a choice between:  (a) Reimbursement of the part of the journey undertaken and a return flight to the first point of departure at the earliest opportunity if they are in transit;  (b) Re-routing, under comparable transport conditions, to their final destination at the earliest opportunity, or  (c) Re-routing, under comparable transport conditions, to their final destination at a later date at the passengers convenience, subject to availability of seats.   Should a passenger decide to make their own arrangements to get to their destination, then the obligations incumbent upon the air carrier are limited.
As the departures board remains decorated with the word “cancelled”, further obligations are placed by the Regulation on airlines to care for their stranded passengers.  They are compelled to provide the following free of charge:  (a) meals and refreshments in a reasonable relation to the waiting time; (b) hotel accommodation where necessary as well as transport to and from the accommodation;  (c) two telephone calls, fax or email messages – (Our number is above if you want a legal briefing after telling the folks at home you won’t be back for dinner!);  (d) Information in relation to legal entitlements.
One really does have to spare a thought for the airlines though.  We were told upon contacting Ryanair that they have 95,000 claims to process.  That’s an awful lot of receipts!  They had experienced more claims in the three weeks after the eruption than in the previous three years combined and had to hire one hundred extra staff including four solicitors to deal with the backlog. There are some difficulties associated with the Regulation, particularly that there is no test for reasonableness of claims built into the legislation.  What is a “reasonable refreshment” for example?  Should Ryanair pay for a gin and tonic when the receipt comes in?
While the legislation does have a section dealing with compensation over and above these reimbursements in the event of certain flight disruptions, an airline is not obliged to pay this if it can prove that the cancellation is caused by extraordinary circumstances.  It appears so far that nobody has challenged the legislation to claim that the Ashes are anything other than extraordinary…
-Paul Pierse