If you fly frequently you’ll eventually encounter some flight issues. How the airline handles the challenge can determine whether the situation is soon forgotten or a major source of agony.
This summer Patty and her family headed to JFK airport, ready to catch a flight to Shannon, Ireland for a family trip they had been dreaming about for years. Suffice it to say the beginning of their trip didn’t go as planned.
In this post I’ll cover the details of Aer Lingus canceling their flight, how Patty scrambled to get the family rebooked and how we ultimately won an EC 261 claim for $8,993! That amount covered full reimbursement of incurred expenses and also “fines” in line with EC 261.
If you don’t want the nitty gritty details of their time at the airport and instead just want to know how we secured reimbursement, scroll past the first couple sections.
A Vacation a Long Time in the Making
For years Patty’s family had talked about a journey to Ireland, the land of their ancestors. With some family retirements in effect the time had come. The planning commenced.
Using tips I’ve shared on this site Patty and three of her family members had obtained British Airways cards. They were able to use the Avios they acquired through the signup bonuses to book 7 of the 8 flight legs between the four of them.
Their booked flight would take them to Shannon, Ireland. It would arrive early on a Monday morning. From the airport they would embark on a two-week group bus tour of the Emerald Isle.
And So it Began…
It was early afternoon on the Sunday in late June. Patty and family packed into the SUV of another family member who wasn’t making the trip. They headed to JFK airport. They were dropped off around 3pm. Their flight was scheduled for a 6:40PM EDT departure. They were very early but they were okay with that as excitement for the trip ran high.
It didn’t take very long for the trouble to start. The gate agent came on the PA system, announcing that their flight was delayed. Then it was delayed further in time. The agent explained that there was a mechanical issue with the plane.
Evening turned to night and the story repeated itself. The agent explained that the mechanics were continuing to work the issue and that they were still expecting to fly out that night.
After four-plus hours of delay, the gate agent announced that the flight had been canceled. There were no other flights out of EWR to Shannon that night. The next nonstop flight on Aer Lingus to Shannon was the same flight the following day. It was booked full.
It was now about midnight on a Sunday night. The airport was nearly empty. Anxiety set in. Patty and family looked to the gate agents for instructions. First the agents told them to go up a level in the airport. There was no one there to help. Then the agents told them to go downstairs. There was no one there help.
The agents gave all 200+ scrambling passengers the same phone number to call. No one answered. Passengers lost their temper at the unhelpful agents.
It became clear to Patty that if they were going to get to Ireland the next day it was going to have to be through addressing the situation herself.
With only her smartphone available she deftly searched for alternative flights. She focused on Aer Lingus flights as she knew that booking on another carrier would likely lead to huge reimbursement hassles.
There was only reasonable option: To fly out of Philadelphia (PHL) the next day. She could book through Aer Lingus a flight itinerary that took them from PHL to Boston on JetBlue and then nonstop from Boston to Shannon on Aer Lingus metal. Fortunately there were enough open seats on the flight to accommodate her whole family.
Because their flights had been booked with Avios points there was no option of using cash credit from her now-canceled flights. She instead booked paid one-way tickets for the group using her Starwood Preferred Guest American Express (more on the relevance of this later). For four of them the price totaled up to a hefty $4,861!
They were now booked on a flight out of Philadelphia but they were sitting in the Newark airport. It was now about 1:00AM. Back to the smartphone. Patty booked them rooms at the Hampton Inn at PHL.
They hailed an UberXL vehicle and a Lyft vehicle. Exhausted, they dragged their now-recovered luggage to the vehicles and plopped in for the two-plus hour ride to PHL.
The next morning as they left the hotel and made the short journey to the airport Patty received a call from an Aer Lingus rep. The rep had the gall to tell Patty that because her reservation was a points reservation through British Airways her British Airways account would be refunded the Avios from the reservation. The rep expounded, saying that Patty and her family would be responsible for paying for the flight they were about to board.
I told Patty to ignore the commentary from the phone rep and proceed with flying out that day.
Fortunately the Monday flight from PHL through BOS to SNN went off as planned. It turned out though that flight EI 11o – the nonstop flight from JFK to SNN – was canceled again on Monday evening. Patty had made a great move in rebooking for the alternative flight out of PHL (flight EI 110 wasn’t an option for Monday as it was full).
The Direct Financial Hit Exceeded $6k
The family arrived in Ireland on Tuesday instead of Monday so an entire day of the vacation was lost. Fortunately the tour company was able to pick up the late arrivals but of course there was no regaining the lost day.
Patty and her family incurred various costs though because of the cancellation:
· Four Aer Lingus fares at $1,215.16 each = $4,860.64
· UberXL transportation for half of party from JFK to PHL: $453.46
· Lyft transportation for other half of party from JFK to PHL: $423.87
· Three rooms at the Hampton Inn PHL: 3 x $202.61 = $607.83
Those incurred expenses added up to a whopping $6,345.80!
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EC 261/2004 Applied in This Situation
Because Aer Lingus had canceled the flight due to mechanical reasons there was no question in my mind that logically they should have to cover the costs that resulted. However, if the flight had been domestic the airline would not be under any legal obligation to do so.
Many times airlines operating in the United States will rebook you and cover hotel cost if an overnight stay is necessary but though it is hard to believe they’re really not responsible for any of that. They are merely responsible for refunding the fare for the canceled flight.
However, and it’s a big however, there is a European Commission regulation that kicks in for certain flights involving European Union-based airlines and/or airlines flying out of a European Union country.
Regulation 261 of the European Commission, which can be viewed in its entirety here, is designed to protect customers whose flights are cancelled or delayed for long periods of time.
There are limits to its applicability though. From the text of the regulation:
1. This Regulation shall apply:
(a) to passengers departing from an airport located in the territory of a Member State to which the Treaty applies;
(b) to passengers departing from an airport located in a third country to an airport situated in the territory of a Member State to which the Treaty applies, unless they received benefits or compensation and were given assistance in that third country, if the operating air carrier of the flight concerned is a Community carrier.
Item (b) covered the case of Patty and family as they were flying to an airport (Shannon) situated in the territory of a member state (Ireland) and the operating air carrier (Aer Lingus) is a community carrier.
There are some other reasonable restrictions. The customer must have a confirmed reservation and have shown up for check-in in line with airline requirements.
There was one element of Patty’s and her family’s trip that had me concerned at first. They had booked seven of the eight legs of the trip using frequent flyer miles. At first I had visions of the airline using that as some sort of excuse to wiggle out of responsibility. However, EC 261 addresses that and makes it clear that even flights booked with frequent flyer miles are covered:
3. This Regulation shall not apply to passengers travelling free of charge or at a reduced fare not available directly or indirectly to the public. However, it shall apply to passengers having tickets issued under a frequent flyer programme or other commercial programme by an air carrier or tour operator.
When EC 261 is in effect, consumers are substantially protected. Article 5 of the regulation covers the outright cancellation of flights. It states that not only must affected customers be offered assistance in accordance with Article 8, but that they are also to be compensated, per Article 7 (with some stipulations).
Article 8 covers the passenger’s right to reimbursement or re-routing, essentially stating that the passenger shall be offered the choice between a refund or booking on another comparable flight. For Patty and her family the latter was preferred of course.
It gets better though. Article 7 establishes a “fine” of sorts. When an airline cancels a subject flight which was to be over 3500km and not within the EU entirely, the airline is responsible for paying compensation of 600 Euros per passenger! There are smaller compensation amounts for other specific scenarios.
Lastly, Article 9 covers the right to care. In layman’s terms, it states that in situations such as the one Patty and her family encountered, the airline shall offered passengers meals and refreshments, hotel accommodations and transport between the airport and the hotel.
To read the full text of the regulation, click/tap here.
The Quest for Reimbursement Begins
Knowing the details of EC 261 I knew that we should be reimbursed for all the incurred expenses and also paid the compensatory amount of 600 Euros per passengers. However, I’ve been around the block in the travel world and I know that getting properly reimbursed/compensated by an airline can be an exercise in agony. It was time to get to work though.
While Patty and her family toured the beautiful Irish countryside I started outlining a reimbursement request letter, which Patty would ultimately complete. We laid out the key facts and emphasized familiarity with EC 261. We clearly stated incurred costs and the 600 Euro per passenger compensation amount. We included copies of receipts for all incurred expenses. It all totaled up to $8,993 for the four passengers, Patty included.
Here is the structure of the letter we composed, included here to potentially help others:
- Flight number and departure and arrival airport, date and time of scheduled flight.
- Details about exact progression of delay announcements and cancellation announcement and lack of assistance at airport.
- Notes on EC 261/2004
- Verbiage indicating that we are well aware of standard practices and obligations of air carriers, including Aer Lingus’ required compliance with EC 261/2004.
- Reiteration of key relevant elements of the regulation. Excerpt: “Under EC 261/2004, if a flight is cancelled, passengers are automatically entitled to their choice of re-routing to the same destination at the earliest opportunity (under comparable conditions) or other alternatives. I fully comprehend that EC 261/2004 is in effect for flights operated by an EU carrier (such as Aer Lingus) and destined for an EU location (such as Ireland).”
- Detailed and specific listing of incurred expenses.
- Polite but firm demand for reimbursement/compensation in compliance with EC 261/2004, specifying the type (1, 2 or 3) of flight.
- Verbiage indicating familiarity with Huzar v Jet2.com. Excerpt: “Please note that I am familiar with case law rulings such as Huzar v Jet2.com, which have confirmed that mechanical issues with a plane are NOT considered an “extraordinary circumstance,” which would relieve airlines of liability for EC 261/2004 compensation. Also, please note that I am well aware that the regulation covers all passengers regardless of their country of citizenship.”
- Verbiage reminding reader that a positive response will partially or fully offset the negative experience and possibly lead us to consider doing business with the airline in the future.
- A listing of next steps we would consider taking if the airline didn’t reimburse/compensate us fully. The first item on the list was to contact the national agency charged with enforcing EC 261. The list also included verbiage indicating we would consider hiring an attorney to file a lawsuit.
- Copies of receipts for incurred expenses.
At First, Our Letter to Aer Lingus Didn’t Yield Much of a Response
Patty submitted our composed letter, with copies of receipts, to Aer Lingus via their website. Aer Lingus acknowledged receipt of the submission but there was no indication of reimbursement/compensation action. Follow-up messages to Aer Lingus didn’t yield any meaningful response.
We Disputed the Cost of Rebooked Airfare with American Express
With no meaningful response from Aer Lingus at that point, Patty proceeded to dispute the credit card charge for the rebooked airfare ($4,861). She had smartly booked the airfare using her Starwood Preferred Guest AMEX. That was smart because American Express generally provides strong customer service and dispute handling.
It Was Time to Escalate to the Irish Commission for Aviation Regulation
As Patty submitted her complaint letter to Aer Lingus I was of the mindset that she should simultaneously submit it to the relevant aviation authority – the Irish Commission for Aviation Regulation. Patty, being a bit less forceful in this case, decided to first give Aer Lingus an opportunity to rectify the situation.
However, with weeks having gone by and no sign of action, there was no more waiting. Patty submitted a brief summary and a copy of her complaint letter and receipts via the website of the Irish Commission for Aviation Regulation.
Credit Card Dispute Success!
Shortly after Patty submitted a complaint to the Irish Commission for Aviation Regulation the tide changed. She received notification from American Express that her dispute had been honored and the cost of the rebooked airfare was being wiped from her American Express account.
Patty sent a message to the Irish Commission for Aviation Regulation to notify them that the credit card dispute had been honored. That however still left over four thousand dollars to be reimbursed/compensated. The struggle was still real.
Irish Commission for Aviation Regulation Notified Patty of Success
Approximately eleven weeks after submitting her complaint to the Irish Commission for Aviation Regulation, Patty received a final email from the commission stating that Aer Lingus had finally agreed to settle the matter. Aer Lingus issued checks covering the entire remaining balance of the complaint. The checks were mailed by the commission from Ireland to the United States.
The checks arrived around October 12th, meaning the entire saga, from day of canceled flight to day of check receipt, lasted 108 days.
The Timeline of the Process
Here are the dates of key steps in this process. Note that every situation is a bit different so timeline could certainly be different for others.
- 26 June – Flight canceled (day of flight)
- 03 July – Complaint/request for reimbursement and compensation submitted to Aer Lingus via their website
- 13 July (approx) – Dispute filed with American Express for cost of rebooked airfare
- 19 July – Complaint/request for reimbursement and compensation submitted to Irish Commission for Aviation Regulation via their website
- 22 August – Credit card dispute honored (cost of rebooked airfare was refunded)
- 04 Oct – Notification received from the Irish Commission for Aviation Regulation that Aer Lingus had agreed to reimburse/compensate and had issued corresponding checks
- 12 Oct – Checks received in mail. Case closed!
Summary and Takeaways
Although Patty and her family ended up each receiving $670 in addition to full reimbursement of incurred expenses, I don’t think any of them consider that a trade they would have willingly made. The stress and frustration of having their flight canceled at such a late hour on a Sunday night was significant. Once those expenses had been incurred though and Patty and family made it to Ireland their mindset was that they’d like to get at least most of their expenses reimbursed but that they weren’t necessarily expecting to succeed in getting full reimbursement. Airlines have a rep for shortchanging customers so to ultimately get full reimbursement and additional compensation felt like a huge win in the end.
A major takeaway from this experience is that EC 261 is a great regulation. It’s not overly onerous on airlines. It’s actually very reasonable. It’s amazing that a regulation that is very logical and reasonable seems so surprising. The US DOT would be wise to implement a similar regulation.
Another takeaway is that in situations such as this, it’s wise to engage the relevant EC 261 enforcement authority. Though Patty’s complaint letter to Aer Lingus mentioned EC 261 repeatedly we saw no signs of action by Aer Lingus until Patty submitted her complaint to the Irish Commission for Aviation Regulation. The Commission communicated with Patty, updating her on the situation, and was ultimately able to secure full reimbursement/compensation.
The final takeaway is that situations such as this require persistence and patience. Unfortunately, reaching a positive outcome in this type of situation will take time. Even with the appropriate enforcement agencies involved you should expect to wait at least a couple months for resolution. However, persistence is key. You must stay on top of the situation and refuse to go away.
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