Icelandic volcano eruption - aviation consumer advice for those stranded abroad

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The unprecedented situation in the UK following the impact of volcanic activity in Iceland gives rise to the pertinent question as to what rights consumers have to a refund, alternative flights, help and assistance and compensation for delay.

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Most travel claim cases will be resolved with airlines and tour operators directly without the need for assistance from a solicitor, especially where the sums in dispute are likely to fall into the small claims track for cases brought in the UK courts. Here are some useful tips for those who are found stranded:

Flights To/From EU Countries:

Those flying between EU member states will be protected by the denied boarding regulations (Regulation (EC) 261/2004). Due to the financial impact the drama of the volcanic ash will have on airlines, many will argue that EU consumer protection was not envisaged for this level of disruption. Nevertheless, where flights are delayed for a set number of hours, customers are entitled to:

  • Re-routing or a refund where the delay is over 5 hours. The airline must cover the cost of any transfers to alternative airports
  • Where a flight is delayed for over 2 hours, customers are entitled to free meals, refreshments, hotel accommodation if appropriate and access to a telephone or other communication such as email or fax. This protection is only likely to apply to those who were already at the airport when the situation arose, hence the advice not to travel to the airport before contacting your airline.

The usual rules for financial compensation are unlikely to apply given the "extraordinary" nature of the volcanic ash saga.

Flights From/To Non-EU Countries:

The same protection for denied boarding or cancellation does not apply where the airline is not EU based or the flight is not to/from an EU country. Here the airline's terms and conditions, together with provisions under the Montreal Convention, will apply.

Most airlines will offer a refund or arrange alternative flights or transport under their terms and conditions. Again, it is important to carefully scrutinise your terms and conditions of carriage and check with the airline what rights you have in the event of cancellation or delay.

The Montreal Convention will only apply if the airline is based in a signatory State or the flight is to/from signatory States. Most airlines' terms and conditions will exclude compensation for losses flowing from the cancellation or delay. Here the provisions under the Montreal Convention may be useful but this is subject to a limit of about £3000.00.

Package Holidays:

Under the Package Travel Regulations, tour operators have a duty to ensure alternative arrangements are made for those whose holidays are delayed due to flight cancellation. Assistance must also be provided to those who are already in resort under the Regulations.

Similar provisions apply in other EU States for those who have booked a "package holiday" with a non-UK based tour operator.

Travel Insurance Protection:

Many travel insurance policies will offer additional protection to those stranded and experiencing delayed departure or those who are yet to depart. The advice here is that consumers should check their individual policy wording and, if in doubt as to the extent of cover, check with their travel insurer.

Not all policies will cover volcanic activity or eruptions and the impact this has on travel arrangements. Where travel insurance does not cover volcanic activity, consumers will need to rely on the other means of legal protection set out above.

Travel policies taken out since the volcanic activity and related disruption will not offer any cover for delayed departure or cancellation which result directly from the volcanic ash situation.

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Daniel Scognamiglio
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