Denied boarding and your EU air passenger rights
Okay so you’ve paid a hefty sum for your flight, you’re dying to get on the plane and get the holiday started, or maybe you’re coming home and just want to get back into your own bed as soon as possible so you can wake up bright and bushy tailed for work. But then the unexpected happens – you’re denied boarding. What now? Can the airline do this? You’ve gone from happy-go-lucky to ‘I’m ringing Joe Duffy’ in a split second.
There has been a lot in the media recently about air passengers either being forcibly removed from a plane, or denied boarding because the flight was overbooked. The ECC Ireland team thought it was a good idea to talk about denied boarding, what your rights are under EU consumer legislation if you are denied boarding, and what the airline’s obligations are.
Also in this month’s ebulletin we’ll take a look at using third party booking websites as well as the European Commission’s investigation into price comparison and travel booking websites across the EU.
This month’s consumer success story involves a consumer who was charged three times for a ticket bought on a secondary ticketing website but got a refund following the intervention of ECC. The consumer query of the month highlights the importance of checking a travel agent’s terms and conditions, and getting everything in writing when booking your flights.
To find out more read on below or download your free copy of ECC Ireland’s April 2017 eBulletin.
Learn your denied boarding rights, or Kung Fu!
Why are we talking about denied boarding this month? Well, it’s actually an area of air passenger rights that doesn’t usually receive that much attention, that is, until now. The issue has come more to the fore following media reports of a passenger being removed from a flight, a couple who were taken off a flight en route to their wedding, and a 10-year-old boy denied boarding on an overbooked flight.
Passengers being removed from an airline is, thankfully, not the run-of-the-mill approach to the problem of overbooked flights. In this day and age, of social media video guardians of justice, we certainly would have had more reports of such treatment by now.
It’s more usual, for denied boarding to occur at the gate, before the passenger even gets onto the overbooked plane. So there really isn’t any need to initiate Kung-Fu attack code red!
However, these media reports do serve to spark a discussion here about denied boarding and EU air passenger rights legislation.
Denied boarding rights under Regulation (EC) No 261/2004:
ECC Ireland mentions Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 quite a lot, probably non-stop in fact. Why? Because air travel has consistently been the most common area of cross-border consumer complaint. The Regulation establishes common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers which air carriers are obliged to comply with in the event of flight delay, cancellation, or denied boarding. It applies to passengers departing from any airport situated in the EU, or arriving into the EU with an EU-based air carrier or one from Iceland, Norway, or Switzerland.
Under Article 4 of the Regulation, when a flight is overbooked the air carrier can first call on passengers to volunteer their seats to other passengers. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why would anyone volunteer to give up their seats? Well, you might, depending on what you get in return for the sacrifice. If volunteers do come forward they can surrender their reservations in exchange of benefits to be agreed between the passenger and the air carrier. Now, what these benefits are vary from case-to-case and really depends on negotiations between the two parties. In addition to this, the air carrier should also give you a choice between alternative flights or a refund of the ticket.
If not enough volunteers come forward to give up their reservations, then the air carrier may then deny boarding to passengers against their will which means you can be prevented from boarding the plane even though you arrived at the airport on time with a confirmed reservation, the required documentation, and sufficient time to complete check-in, security, and boarding procedures.
If you are denied boarding against your will, the air carrier should offer you the choice between:
- Re-routing to your final destination as soon as possible, or
- A refund of the part of parts of the journey not completed.
Care and assistance while waiting for re-routed flight:
If you choose the re-routing option then you are also entitled to care and assistance while you are waiting for your alternative flight. This care and assistance means you should be provided with:
- Meals and refreshments (in reasonable relation to the waiting time)
- Hotel accommodation (where an overnight stay becomes necessary)
- Transport between the airport and the hotel (where necessary)
- Two telephone calls/faxes/emails.
Denied boarding and compensation:
As well as care and assistance, passengers denied boarding against their will are also entitled to compensation. The amount of compensation payable depends on the distance of the flight – it ranges from €250 for flights for 1,500km, €400 for intra-community flights of more than 1,500km or for other flights between 1,500km and 3,500km, to €600 for all other flights.
When rules for denied boarding does not apply:
The rules under Regulation 261 for denied boarding do not apply where the airline has reasonable grounds to refuse boarding to passengers. This would include health, safety, or security concerns, inadequate travel documents, or if the passenger arrives too late for the check-in or boarding procedures.
No boxing gloves required with this denied boarding information:
So, that’s denied boarding in a nutshell. Hopefully this information will help you know what to do if you ever encounter a denied boarding situation, without the need to yank the boxing gloves out of the already bulging cabin luggage.
Indiana Jones as a very strict flight attendant. Source: Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade. Gif source: Imgur.
Third party booking websites
It’s the time of year when people are organising their holidays and in so doing often use third party websites which act as a sort of intermediary between consumers and service providers (e.g. airline and hotels) to facilitate the booking. However, it is important to remember that the contract for the service is formed between the consumer and the service provider directly and the website is not a party to it. This means that in the event of a problem with the booking, the consumer would usually have to make contact with the service provider directly, a situation which can cause confusion.
Here are some useful tips for those looking to book a trip through a third party site:
- Read the terms and conditions of the booking website. In many cases, the contract for the service (such as the flight, provision of accommodation, etc.) is formed directly between the consumer and the provider of the service. If this is the case, this information should be clearly specified in the website’s terms.
- Read the terms and conditions of the service provider, as these will also apply to the booking. Consumers may wish to pay particular attention to information on payment and any cancellation rights. For instance, if booking accommodation, it is advisable to check if the rate is non-refundable or if there is a possibility to cancel.
- Carefully research the website. Always ensure to check for full contact details, including a geographical address, and verify these with additional internet searches. Such searches may also turn up any negative feedback left by other consumers.
- Check the name and URL of the website in the browser address bar. ECC Ireland has received queries from consumers who understood they were booking directly with a service provider, only to subsequently realise that they had used a booking website which looked similar to that of the service provider. Some third party sites may rank more highly in search engines due to sponsored search results, so it is important to ensure you are on the website you’re looking for.
- Be wary of any requests by a service provider to complete a reservation outside the booking platform of the third party website. This is sometimes a sign of a potential scam and may leave consumers unprotected if something goes wrong.
Commission and consumer protection authorities act on misleading travel booking websites
Earlier this month, the European Commission revealed the results of an investigation, known as a ‘sweep’, of price comparison and travel booking websites across the EU.
The European Commission and EU consumer protection authorities launched a coordinated screening of 352 of these websites in October 2016. They found that prices were not reliable on 235 websites, two thirds of the sites checked. For example, additional price elements were added at a late stage of the booking process without clearly informing the consumer or promotional prices did not correspond to any available service.
Authorities have asked the websites concerned to bring their practises in line with EU consumer legislation, which requires them to be fully transparent about prices, and present their offers in a clear way, at an early stage of the booking process.
To find out more, read the European Commission’s press release on misleading travel booking websites.
Consumer success story of the month:
A consumer was charged three times for two tickets purchased from a secondary ticketing website which meant that the consumer was overcharged by €1,301.94. Following the intervention of the ECC the trader agreed to refund the cost of the two unwanted ticket orders noting that this was awarded against its normal terms and conditions and as a goodwill gesture, in light of the circumstances of the case and given the ‘frustration’ this may have caused the consumer. The consumer was delighted with this good result and thankful to the ECC for the assistance given.
Consumer query of the month:
Q: I booked a flight for six passengers through a travel agent last October with the total cost of €2,950 which was to be fully paid a few weeks before the travel date. I initially paid €1,350 when I booked it and I was told by the travel agent, over the phone, that two of the flight tickets would be paid for out of the deposit and there was no rush to pay the remaining balance. However, a few months later I found out that the travel agent was unable to book the remaining tickets at the agreed price and the price had risen substantially (more than €700 per person and rising). They say that they tried to contact me by email but I didn’t see any. Shouldn’t the tickets be provided at the agreed price I was told and that was given on the confirmation order? What can I do?
A: Given that this is very time sensitive issue and the price of the tickets will continue to rise, in this particular case, it is important to contact the travel agent directly and seek a resolution or satisfactory compromise as soon as possible. However, please note that the written correspondence between you and the travel agent contains no incontrovertible evidence of assurances given that a partial payment would secure your full booking. This raises the possibility that the travel agent may claim that no such assurances were given. It is also stated in the terms and conditions of your order that ‘deposits are non-refundable’, that deposits are for holding the seat only (not the fare), and any fare difference at the time of final payment will be charged accordingly. It further states that the airline reserves the right to change the fare any time before issuing the ticket and the travel agent will not accept responsibility for any change in the fare by the airline. The travel agent may therefore choose to rely on this and it may lead to further difficulties in arguing that you should be provided with the flight tickets which were included in your original order confirmation.
It is very important to ensure that you read the terms and conditions when booking flights with directly with a travel agent or a third party website paying particular attention to who the contract is with, what happens with deposits and how it affects the booking, how final payment will be made, and what to do if you want to cancel. It is also recommended that consumers get confirmation in writing and keep all further written (email) correspondence where possible. When problems arise, it is very difficult to rely on agreements made during phone conversations so always made sure that what has been agreed is confirmed in a tangible medium such as an email. Even when deposits have been made it is advised to pay as soon as possible as flight tickets or other transport costs can rise and this may be outside the travel agent’s control.
Press and Communications Officer
The European Consumer Centre is part of the European Consumer Centres Network (ECC-Net), which covers 30 countries (all EU countries plus Norway and Iceland), and offers a free and confidential information and advice service to the public on their rights as consumers, assisting customers with cross-border disputes. ECC Ireland is funded by the European Commission and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure accuracy, the European Consumer Centre cannot be held responsible for matters arising from any errors or omissions contained in this publication. The information provided is intended as a guide only and not as a legal interpretation.
© 2017 – European Consumer Centre (Ireland) Ltd, MACRO Centre, 1 Green Street, Dublin 7. Company limited by guarantee in Ireland, No. 367035 – Registered Charity No. 20048617 – CHY14708.
This ebulletin is part of the action 670695 – ECC-Net IE FPA which has received funding under a grant for an ECC action from the European Union’s Consumer Programme (2014-2020).
The content of this ebulletin represents the views of the author only and it is his/her sole responsibility; it cannot be considered to reflect the views of the European Commission and/or the Consumers, Health, Agriculture, and Food Executive Agency or any other body of the European Union. The European Commission and the Agency do not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.