Coping with holiday flight nightmares

Cancelled flights can put an end to a trip abroad before it has even begun
Cancelled flights can put an end to a trip abroad before it has even begun

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With the end of term upon us and the annual holiday adventure just around the corner, no one wants to think about holiday problems from hell.

Yet overbooked flights, unexpected cancellations, flight delays and disruptions, can completely ruin a holiday experience before it even begins to take off.

According to the Air Transport Users Council’s last report before it was absorbed into the Civil Aviation Authority, the number of complaints about airlines has risen sharply since 2005 when new EU compensation rules came on stream.

Top of gripe list is airline failures, but a close runner-up is flight delays, strikes, and cancellations, leaving passengers helplessly stranded overseas or stuck at a home airport hoping their expensive holiday has not gone down the drain.

In some cases, holidaymakers only have themselves to blame for a ruined holiday experience.

Streetwise receives far too many complaints from readers who failed to take out appropriate holiday insurance, then expected the tour operator to refund their money when disaster struck.

Events over the past year have highlighted widespread public confusion and ignorance about the degree of protection provided for holidaymakers when their getaway dream goes sour.

Jane Negus, from European law services watchdog, the European Consumer Centre for Services, said: ‘After the volcanic ash crisis, the winter whiteout, unacceptable flight delays, and airlines going bust, you can understand passengers’ concerns and why it’s crucial they know their rights if airlines try to fob them off when the unexpected happens.

‘The EU Denied Boarding Regulations provides comprehensive consumer rights for holidaymakers travelling within the EU, or when flying into the EU with an EU-based airline.’

But critics say the regulations are complex and not easy to understand.

Initially, you should have the choice between a refund, and a rearranged flight at the earliest opportunity at no extra cost.

Where this is not an option, airlines are required to pay for hotel accommodation, meals and refreshments, a limited number of phone calls and fax messages.

If the airline tries to wriggle out of its legal obligations you have a right to claim a refund on any arrangements you make when you get home. But don’t think you can go on an upmarket hotel splurge at the airline’s expense.

You should keep your costs to a minimum and keep receipts.

This also applies if your flight is significantly delayed or rerouted. If your flight was so badly rescheduled that it no longer serves the original purpose of getting you to your destination, you can apply for a full refund.

If an airline point blank refuses your compensation claim you should complain to the airline regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority. The CAA can ensure the law is adhered to. They can be contacted for help and advice at 020 7240 6061.

The CAA is also responsible for the Air Travellers Organisers Licence (ATOL) bonding scheme.

ATOL bonded holidays protect you in the event of the airline or tour operator going bust and leaving you stranded at your holiday destination.

Always check your airline or package holiday company is ATOL bonded before you book.

In the frustrating event of your luggage being lost, damaged, or delayed the airline may be liable for damages under the little-known Montreal Convention 1999.

Always ensure any valuable items are taken on board the flight in your hand luggage, as the maximum compensation under the terms of the convention is only around £1,000.

Free detailed help and advice about the EU Denied Boarding Regulations’ compensation rules can also be obtained from the European Centre for Services helpline 08456 089 494, ukecc-services.net or by emailing eccs@tsi.org.uk