Sunday, 9 September 2018

How to get money from an airline

Check from Delta Air Lines for $732.15

Once upon a time, airline passengers could expect that if an airline cancelled a flight, the airline would arrange and pay for meals and hotel accommodations for stranded passengers until it was able to get them to their originally ticketed destinations on its own or other airlines’ flights.

Today, it’s become increasingly common for airlines to cancel flights preemptively, or to delay departures for hours, if they fear that flights might be delayed or diverted by adverse weather, air traffic congestion, unavailability of flight crews, or other circumstances. But it’s no longer routine for most U.S. airlines, on most routes, to provide hotel or meal vouchers to passengers holding tickets on cancelled or delayed flights.

U.S. Federal law entitles ticketed passengers to cash compensation if, but only if, they are involuntarily denied boarding because a flight is “overbooked”. But airlines are usually able to evade cash payments by bribing passengers on overbooked flights with airline scrip, not cash, to “voluntarily” give up their seats.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s guide to flyers’ rights doesn’t even mention airline-paid hotel accommodations as a possibility, and describes meal vouchers or any other compensation as an “amenity” entirely at the discretion of the airline:

Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport; there are no federal requirements. If you are delayed, ask the airline staff if it will pay for meals or a phone call. Some airlines, often those charging very low fares, do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers. Others may not offer amenities if the delay is caused by bad weather or something else beyond the airline’s control. Contrary to popular belief, for domestic itineraries [within the U.S.] airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or cancelled.

That’s an accurate statement of U.S. law. Fortunately, consumer protection law is much better in many other countries than it is in the U.S.

As the check pictured above shows, there are still times when airlines, including U.S. airlines, pay cash compensation to passengers with tickets on cancelled or delayed flights. In some cases, passengers are legally entitled to cash compensation as well as food and lodging while they are delayed. Often, all you need to do to receive accommodations and/or compensation is ask.

But many, perhaps most, U.S. travellers have given up hope of ever getting cash rather than scrip from an airline, don’t realize that they may have more rights under foreign law than under U.S. law, even when they are flying on a U.S. airline, and don’t know what to ask for, when, or how.

I got the check from Delta Air Lines pictured above for US$735.15 (for one passenger, on one cancelled flight), as well as vouchers from the airline for a night in an airport hotel outside Paris, transfers from the airport to the hotel and back, and dinner and breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I got where I was going a day late, and had to rearrange some of my plans, but US$735 is enough that I felt fairly compensated.

Getting paid by the airline wasn’t hard, but I wouldn’t have gotten anything if I hadn’t known to ask.

Here’s how getting compensated worked for me, and what you need to know:

On March 1st of this year, I was scheduled to travel from Geneva, Switzerland to Boston. I had started my trip in San Francisco but was returning to Boston; I needed to visit both Brussels and Geneva; and the lowest fares on these routes allowed “single open jaws” but not “double open jaws”. As a result, I chose to fly (on Air France) from SFO to Paris to Boston, and take trains from Paris to Brussels, Geneva, and back to Paris.

I was booked on an 8:30 a.m. train on March 1st from Geneva to Charles De Gaulle Airport (CDG), with a change of trains in Lyon. There are direct trains from Geneva to Paris, but they go to the Gare de Lyon, not to either of Paris airports. There are often better rail connections between Geneva and many other places including CDG Airport, Brussels, London, and Frankfurt via Lyon-Part-Dieu than via Paris.

I woke up to snow falling heavily in Geneva, and a series of overnight e-mail and SMS messages from Air France. The first e-mail message, at 3:25 a.m. (Geneva and Paris time), advised that my flight had been cancelled and that I would be rebooked on another flight. Much further down in this message, it said, “Are you already at the airport? If you are already at the airport, we would like to offer you something to drink and to eat. If necessary, we will also gladly arrange a hotel stay for you, including transportation to and from your accommodation. Please contact our ground staff or print your coupon from a self-service machine.”

But I wasn’t at the airport in Paris — I was still in Geneva — and at that point I had no reason to think that I wouldn’t be rebooked on some other flight or set of connecting flights that same day. The claim about being able to print hotel or meal coupons from a “self-service machine” was false, so far as I can tell, and would have sent me on a wild-goose chase. None of the Air France staff I later spoke to at the airport, including those who eventually printed my hotel and meal vouchers, believed that there was any such self-service machine.

(There’s nothing about accommodations or compensation in this text message from Air France, and the phone number from which it was sent is invalid.)

A later e-mail message and SMS message at 5:40 a.m. informed me that I had been rebooked on a Delta Air Lines flight the next day. Those later messages — which naturally were the ones I read more closely, since they had the latest information on a changing situation, including the details of my new flight — made no mention of meal, hotel, or airport shuttle vouchers. They also suggested I contact Air France, but provided no phone number or other contact information: “Our staff is ready to provide you with any assistance you may need…. Please do not respond to this mail.”

Should I stay in Geneva for another night? Find myself a hotel near the airport in Paris? Spend the night in Lyon, if hotels there were cheaper than in Geneva or Paris? If I found a hotel on my own, would the airline reimburse me? Was there a chance that if I got to the airport in Paris in time, I could get on some other flight to the U.S., with a connection on to Boston, that same day?

Contact info in the Air France app
(The “Contact Us” section of the Air France app isn’t much help if you are travelling in a part of the world — France, for example — in a different time zone from the USA.)

I tried to call Air France, but they don’t make it easy. If you bought your ticket in the U.S., the only phone number provided by the Air France app is the 800 number for their U.S. office, which is only open during U.S. hours. If you switch to the version of the app for customers in France, you are directed to the French equivalent of a 900 number. Calls to this French number are subject to a surcharge of 35 Euro cents per minute, and — more importantly — you can only call this number from French phones, not from outside France or from a cellphone with a foreign number, even while roaming in France.

Air France has an international call center with customer service in English, reachable from any phone worldwide at +33-892-702-654. No airline in the world is more global than Air France, and it should be obvious that customers from the U.S. might need customer service, while travelling in France or anywhere else in the Air France route system, at times when the U.S. office is closed. It would be easy to have the U.S. phone number roll over to the international call center when the U.S. office is closed, and/or to include that worldwide customer service number in every list of Air France contacts.

Since then, apparently in response to my complaint about this, the number of the international call center has been added to the Air France app. But it’s only displayed if you first switch your settings to say that you are in France, and then scroll down below both the U.S. number and the special France-only number. It’s still nowhere, even as an alternative, on the U.S. versions of the app or Web site.

I also Tweeted a query about this to Air France. But the “answer” came three days later, two days after my eventual flight; didn’t say anything about hotel arramngements or reimbursement; and referred me to a URL and a phone number neither of which worked from my location. If you visit the main Air France Web site from a U.S. IP address, you are redirected to the U.S. site, breaking any direct links. Similarly, if you try to go to the US site from an IP address in France or anywhere else, you are rediected to the French site or a “local” site, breaking any direct links to pages on the U.S. site.

Unable to get through to the Air France office in the U.S. (closed, since it was the middle of the night in the U.S.) or their special French number (unreachable from my U.S. cellphone), I eventually got through to Air France by looking up the phone number of their office in Belgium. The Belgian office told me that I would have to go to the airport in Paris to find out whether any other flights to Boston (or anywhere in the U.S.) were available that day or whether I would be provided with meals or lodging for the night. They told me I couldn’t go directly to a hotel provided by Air France, or find one on my own and get reimbursed. This last part was directly contrary to European Union law, which would have entitled me to reimbursement. And if the airline is going to pay for accommodations, why not send passengers directly to the hotel assigned by the airline? It would be better for the airline not to make passengers go to the airport, just to pick up vouchers, if their flight has already been cancelled, the airport is already full of delayed passengers, and the airport staff are already busy.

Meanwhile, I was making my way through the storm to CDG airport.

I was lucky I was on a train, and not trying to drive or take a bus. Speeds on the TGV were being held down to 200 km/hour (125 mph) rather than the scheduled 300 km/hour (186 mph) for safety in the snow and ice. The Gare de Lyon-Part-Dieu was bursting with travellers whose trains had been delayed or who had missed their connections. I didn’t get to the airport until after my (cancelled) flight had originally been scheduled to depart. But, as is usually the case, bad weather had much more of an impact on the roads than on the rails. Thousands of trucks were stopped by glare ice and blowing snow on the A9 autoroute, blocking the highway to all traffic. Motorists were trapped in their vehicles or evacuated to shelters. The road blockages extended for miles, and took many hours to clear once the storm abated.

There were more delays after I got to the airport. An unattended bag had been spotted near the top of the escalators from the train station to the Air France terminal, and the area had been evacuated until the bomb squad could deal with the “suspicious” item. I had to take the elevator to another level (with the escalators closed off, there was about a half hour wait for the elevator), walk to the far end of the terminal, go back down to the basement, cross over through the underground parking garage, come back up, and walk back through the other side of the terminal.

No detour signs had been posted, and no airport or airline staff were directing pedestrian traffic, although hundreds of passengers were milling around in crowded confusion on both sides of the police lines closing off the normal pathway between the train station and the airport.

Once inside the Air France terminal, I expected a long line at the Air France customer service counter — but I assumed that would be easy to find at Air France’s hub. Instead, I spent more than two hours being misdirected, by seemingly well-meaning airline and airport staff, back and forth from one end of the complex to the other, waiting in one long line after another to be told that I was in the wrong place. The low point came when I found an inconspicuous sign for “Air France Customer Service”, and followed it to a corridor that dead-ended just past the entrance to the toilets.

Finally I was sent to a check-in counter marked for a cancelled flight to the U.K., where a long line (as I expected) of passengers on cancelled flights including mine to Boston were being dealt with.

In the meantime, all of the other flights from Paris to the U.S. for the day had departed, so there was no longer any chance of getting rebooked on an alternate route. All flights from Paris to the U.S. except mine operated normally on March 1st. I still don’t know why my flight was cancelled, but I do know that it wasn’t because of bad weather. The snowfall was exceptionally heavy in the British Isles, however, and numerous flights to the U.K. and Ireland had been cancelled.

It took about half an hour after I got to the head of the queue — there was no argument, and I don’t know what caused this final delay — for one of the check-in staff to issue me vouchers for a night at a hotel near the airport, dinner, breakfast, and transfers to and from the hotel.

Everyone I met at the hotel buffet had been sent there by Air France because their flight had been cancelled or delayed. None of them, however, were from the U.S. or had been booked on my flight to Boston. I suspect that travellers from the U.S. were less likely to know to ask the airline for hotel vouchers, and were fending for themselves at their own expense, or sleeping (or trying to sleep) in the airport.

The weather was less promising the next day, March 2nd. A storm with severe wind gusts was expected to move up the East Coast of the U.S. during the day. In anticipation of airports having to close. Air France cancelled all of its flights to Boston, New York, and Washington.

The only flight from Paris to the northeastern U.S. that day that wasn’t cancelled was the Delta flight to Boston on which I had been rebooked. The passenger seated next to me had been booked to New York in business class, but considered himself lucky to have gotten a middle seat in coach to Boston.

I presume that Delta didn’t want its plane stranded in Paris out of rotation, and hoped it could get it back to Boston before the storm. Boston is the closest major airport to Europe in the U.S., and the last one that the storm, moving northeast up the East Coast, was expected to reach. Airlines have reduced scheduled cruising speeds in recent years to save fuel — if you have the impression that flights take longer than they used to, you’re right! — but most modern passenger jets are capable of safely flying significantly faster than the most fuel-efficient speed, when and if the pilots are given permission to do so.

Before departure and again as we approached Boston, the pilots reassured us that they wouldn’t try to land if it didn’t seem safe, and that they were fully prepared and had enough fuel to divert to Detroit (another Delta hub) if necessary. But we arrived early, ahead of the storm, and landed on a dry runway in Boston without incident.

All’s well that ends well, and unless I had known better, that would have been the end of the story.

On March 7th, not having heard anything from Air France about compensation, I submitted a “complaint” through the Air France Web site. On March 16th I got a response from Delta, “After reviewing this claim, compensation is due in accordance with the EU recommendations. I’ll request a check in the amount of $735.15 USD equivalent to 600 EUR. Please allow enough time for processing and postal delivery.”

The check pictured from Delta at the top of this article, dated March 19th, arrived a few days later. There was never any explanation for why the answer to my compliant, or the check, came from Delta. It was Air France that owed me compensation. I assume that Delta was acting solely as an agent or contractor for Air France.

Was this good service or bad from Air France?

To its credit, Air France rebooked me before I even know that my ticketed flight had been cancelled. They got me where I wanted to go, by putting me on another airline, on a day when most flights including all of their own were cancelled. Once I found the right counter at their hub at which to present myself, they paid for my lodging and meals for the night. And once I submitted a claim through their online “complaint” form, they had Delta send me a check, fairly promptly, for the compensation to which I was entitled.

On the other side of the ledger, I assume that most passengers who had been ticketed on the same flight received neither accommodations nor compensation, since they didn’t know to ask. There was no reason for the airline to make me go to the airport at all on a day when my flight had already been cancelled. Finding the customer service desk or reaccommodation counter should have been straightforward.

The airline could have booked a hotel room for me at the same time they rebooked my flight, and sent me directly to the hotel. They could have sent me a check for the compensation to which I was legally entitled, without my first having to submit a formal compliant. But that’s not the way they, or most other airlines, operate. Passengers are compensated if, and only if, they know their rights and take the initiative to ask, “Where’s my money?”

When are you entitled to accommodations and/or compensation? How much are you entitled to? The law varies by country and flight.

Which countries’ consumer protection laws are applicable to an airline ticket purchase varies depending on where you buy your ticket (which can mean where you are located, where the ticket is issued, or both), where the airline is incorporated and/or nominally based, and the countries where each of the flights in your itinerary originate, terminate, or land en route.

The law on cancelled or delayed flights that most often benefits travellers from the U.S. is that of the European Union. If a trans-Atlantic or other long-haul flight to which this E.U. law applies is cancelled or delayed by more than 3 hours, each passenger is entitled to 600 Euros compensation. If you are rebooked to travel the next day, you are also entitled to food and lodging for the night. “If assistance is not offered and you paid for your own meals and refreshments etc., the airline should reimburse you, provided the expenses were necessary, reasonable and appropriate.”

The E.U. law protecting airlines passengers’ rights applies to any flight operated by an airline based in the E.U., regardless of where the flight starts or ends, and to any flight departing from an airport in the E.U., regardless of airline.

That means that flights from the U.S. to the E.U. on E.U. airlines are covered, but flights from the U.S. to the E.U. on U.S. airlines aren’t. If you fly on a US airline, you are protected only on the flight from Europe to the U.S., not on the way from the U.S. to Europe. If you fly on a European airline, you are protected on all flights in both directions, including connections beyond or outside the E.U. So the first takeaway here is that, all else being equal, you have significantly better consumer protections on a European than on a U.S. airline. All else being equal, avoid U.S. airlines.

Applicability of some other consumer protection rules depends on which airline’s flight number is shown on the ticket. But whether this particular provision of E.U. law applies depends on which airline operates the ticketed flight, regardless of which airline’s flight number appears on your ticket. All else being equal, avoid codeshare flights operated by a U.S. airline, even if they would be ticketed with the flight number of a European airline.

General notices about the law on compensation for flight delays or cancellation are posted in every European airport. But the most significant loophole in the European law is that airlines aren’t required to provide specific notice to passengers when compensation is due, i.e. when a flight is cancelled or substantially delayed, and aren’t required to provide compensation or accommodations unless passengers request it.

I sent Air France the following questions. Air France’s public relations department acknowledged receiving these questions, but declined to provide any response, despite my follow-up e-mail messages and phone calls:

  1. Why was AF334, 01MAR, CDG-BOS cancelled? (Many flights to the Northeastern US were cancelled in anticipation of adverse weather on 02MAR. But all other flights on these routes operated normally on 01MAR.)
  2. How many passengers had been ticketed for this flight?
  3. How many of them were provided with hotel accommodations?
  4. How many of them were provided with compensation?
  5. Why didn’t AF notify passengers that accommodations would be provided, so that they could have gone directly to the provided hotel without first
    having to go to the airport?
  6. Why doesn’t AF notify passengers that they are entitled to compensation, or provide compensation automatically, rather than providing compensation only to those passengers who request it?

I was, and still am, especially interested in what percentage of passengers knew enough to ask for, and receive, the accommodations and compensation to which they were legally entitled. I’ll update this article if I ever receive any answers from Air France.

Screenshot of Air France Web site
(Screenshot of Contact Us page on the Air France Web site: “A perfect and absolute blank.” Click image for full-size version.)

Update: After publishing this article and sending a copy to the Air France spokesperson from whom I had originally requested comment, I received a reply claiming that, “I looked up your previous email in my mail box. Looks like I had not received it, sorry for the inconvenience!” However, I was told months ago by Air France both by phone and on Twitter, in response to follow-ups to my unanswered queries, that my messages had been received: “Hello Edward, we have passed on your message to our webmaster. Our press officer will work elaborately on your enquiry and will respond to you per email fairly soon…. Many thanks”. I have again invited Air France to repond to my query, as above.

Link | Posted by Edward, 9 September 2018, 13:38 ( 1:38 PM) | Comments (2)

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