Page last updated at 13:11 GMT, Tuesday, 18 May 2010 14:11 UK

Iceland volcano: Air passenger rights

By Kevin Peachey
Personal finance reporter, BBC News

Delayed passenger
Some passengers have had long waits to get home

Passengers across UK and Europe have faced regular disruption owing to flight restrictions caused by the volcanic ash cloud.

Many airports have been affected and UK passengers have been stranded for days and weeks when trying to return home.

Some have cancelled holidays and others have been forced to take extra time off work and school.

So if passengers are affected, what are their rights?

What are my basic rights?

You have a contract with the airline to get you from A to B. So that means the airline should try to re-route your journey.

EU REGULATIONS

When the ash has affected flights, many people have been told to stay at home and contact their airline before they travel. Passengers can generally choose to have a refund or to change to another flight, according to the Trading Standards Institute. Airlines are usually quite swift to give refunds and should not charge an administration fee.

When things are moving again, those rebooked on more expensive flights will not have to pay the difference.

What happens if I am stranded and trying to get home?

If a flight is cancelled, or delayed for more than five hours, in Europe, there are strict European rules in place, which mean that the airline is obliged to provide assistance at the airport. This includes supplying meals and refreshments, along with accommodation if an overnight stay is required.

Key points include:

  • People flying into the European Union from overseas are also covered by the rules, as long as they are travelling on a European airline. Passengers on non-EU carriers leaving from an EU airport are also covered
  • There should be no time limit on their provision of accommodation and food, even though it adds to the financial pressure on airlines
  • If passengers have organised their own return travel or hotel stays, they should apply to the airline for the money back when they return. But if these are costs are "unreasonable" - such as a taxi back from Spain - then the airline will not pay. Alternative return transport organised by airlines will be safest as there will be no need to pay out and claim back
  • Those flying on non-EU carriers, from outside the EU, are entitled to a refund or to be rebooked under alternative regulations, but will probably have to make a claim to their insurance company for hotel and food costs
  • Those on "codesharing flights" get the rights given to passengers of the airline they booked with. For example, a passenger flying into the UK on a American Airlines flight, but who actually booked with BA and has a BA flight number will get the same rights as a BA passenger.

For those stranded overseas, it is worth keeping expenditure on continuing stays to a minimum and then making a claim to the airline. This might be an issue because there might be a shortage of hotel space.

Many airlines have been providing alternative ways to get home - such as coaches - but for those further from home hotel rooms and food are being provided as they wait.

Rights will apply to future flights, even if passengers book now and find there is still disruption weeks from now.

However, owing to the fact that any cancellations would be beyond airlines' control, there is no automatic right to other compensation. Extra compensation is available if a flight is cancelled or delayed and it is the airline's fault.

Does the airline look after me if I have two single tickets?

This has been a source of discussion with the emergence of budget airlines.

Departure board
Flights have been affected at many UK airports this year

However, the EU rules on assistance apply equally to any journey, whether one-way or part of a return ticket, according to the Air Transport Users Council.

Technically speaking, the airlines should arrange and pay for the hotel and meal costs for passengers while they wait for the new flights.

Those who have single tickets and miss a return flight with one airline because their outbound flight with another airline is cancelled might not get a refund for the return flight.

How long is this expected to last, and what about insurance?

That depends on the ash situation and the disruption is changing minute-by-minute.

The situation is further confused as the volcano is still erupting at intervals.

Some travel insurance policies will pay out if a holiday, with its associated costs such as hotels, is cancelled owing to the flight problems. However, this depends on the small print so it is worth looking at your policy.

Rochelle Turner, of the consumers' association Which?, said that very few insurance policies have this cover and as a result many holidaymakers who booked flights and accommodation separately could lose the money spent on hotels. People who get a refund and who then book more expensive alternative transport are also likely to lose out financially.

Package holidays have their own protection. Operators must refund customers for the whole holiday if trips are cancelled, meaning they could not get to their destination.

In reality, operators tend to give three options to people on package deals. They are: deferring the leaving date of the holiday, transferring to another holiday of the same or similar value, or a refund of the amount paid for the whole holiday.

There is also a potential claim to your credit card provider if you booked using your card.

What happens if I cannot get back to work?

If you are missing work because you are stranded overseas, then this is still considered to be unauthorised leave and your employer does not have to pay you.

Many employers would suggest that the time is taken as holiday but the employee would have to agree to this. They might discuss the possibility of working remotely, if possible.

James Wilders, an employment partner at the law firm Dickinson Dees, said employers had no obligation to help their employees get home - unless they were away on business.

"Employers have a duty of care which would extend to securing the safe return of everyone affected by the current disruption while on business," he said.

"They must meet any additional expenses incurred by staff while abroad on business such as accommodation and subsistence costs as well as reasonable travel arrangements."

However, knock-on costs such as childcare or missed events would usually not be covered.



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