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Airline woes over stranded passengers

As scientists and politicians debate the relationship between carbon emissions and storms such as the one that devastated the US east coast last week, some people in the airline industry are more worried about a different kind of problem.

November 05, 2012 / 01:40 PM IST

As scientists and politicians debate the relationship between carbon emissions and storms such as the one that devastated the US east coast last week, some people in the airline industry are more worried about a different kind of problem.

As with the EU's emissions trading scheme, where battles over jurisdiction have led to cancelled aircraft orders and threats of trade wars, the industry foresees schisms over European rules on how to cope with air passengers stranded by hurricanes and other disruptions.

While travellers who fell victim to hurricane Sandy may have all been facing the same challenges regardless of their country of origin, customers of European airlines had far stronger legal rights - to room and board, for example, if not for compensation for the inconvenience.

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And with the protection of passenger rights strengthening in Europe in recent weeks thanks to a ruling by the European Court of Justice, experts see conflict arising over which country's regime applies in an industry that is almost by definition international.

"The industry has always wanted to do things on a global basis," says Michael Burns, an aviation consultant with PwC. "We've seen that on the environmental front, and in terms of passenger rights and compensation we're going to run into the same issue."

Tom van Bokhoven, whose company Flight Delayed helps people claim compensation for late and cancelled flights, has found that even within Europe considerable differences exist in both the number of people who pursue compensation claims and the resistance they meet.

In the two weeks following the ECJ ruling last month, which confirmed that passengers whose flights landed more than three hours later than scheduled deserved the same compensation as those whose flights were cancelled, FlightDelayed saw a surge in claims to 180 a day.

"Especially in the UK, people are now more confident of getting compensated." he says. "We are now resubmitting claims with airlines to give them another chance to pay. Otherwise, a lot of complaints will be filed with the CAA," he adds, referring to the UK's main aviation regulator.

Mr van Bokhoven distinguishes that interest from inquiries related to hurricane Sandy, since the EU legislation makes exceptions for weather-related delays and other disruptions out of the hands of airlines - including flights directly affected by strikes.

But David Pitura, an airline analyst with JPMorgan, points out that even that line has been blurred in the wake of the 2010 ash cloud that shut down northern European airspace for several days. "If that wasn't an 'act of God', I don't know what is," he says.

As for jurisdictional wrangling, the US ran into resistance when it tried to apply its (much weaker) passenger protections to foreign carriers. European, Middle Eastern and Asian airlines almost universally objected to US insistence that they develop contingency plans in the case of tarmac delays - when passengers are stranded on grounded aircraft that have either pulled away from the gate in preparation for a take-off that is delayed or have landed but not been given a gate.

Airlines such as Qatar and Air New Zealand objected to vague language about the food and other facilities that must be provided in such circumstances, while European airlines pointed out that the EU legislation under which they operate would make the US law redundant, since they were already forced to provide a much higher level of service.

Mr Burns of PwC argues the changing nature of the airline industry is set to complicate all of this further. "When you book separate connecting tickets even when in the same alliance, you're dealing with two separate legal entities in two separate legal jurisdictions," he says.

That raises the possibility that a person flying from, say, Frankfurt to Los Angeles via Atlanta might hold a Lufthansa-issued boarding pass for one leg of the journey and a Delta pass for another, which could leave him without recourse to compensation if mechanical failures delayed him six hours in Atlanta.

"And people are increasingly self-connecting," Mr Burns adds, referring to the practice of booking two legs of a journey yourself, particularly when one is a low-cost carrier outside any alliance. "Who owns the self-connecting passenger?" he asks.

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