Are you entitled to compensation if your flight is affected by strikes?
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
It’s not even been four months since U.K. travel restrictions were lifted, and already the air industry is facing a “summer of strikes”.
Ryanair staff in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Belgium are staging a walkout this week over pay and conditions; easyJet crew in Spain look set to strike for the same reason across nine days in July; and last week British Airways check-in staff at Heathrow voted overwhelmingly for industrial action throughout July and August.
For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
In short, strikes can mean only one thing for those hoping to fly away somewhere: more delays, and more cancellations.
But what can you do if your flight is delayed or cancelled because of a strike? And are you entitled to compensation? We spoke to a legal expert to find out.
What are my rights if my flight is delayed or cancelled because of a strike?
This depends on a number of factors.
“The first thing to remember is that if a flight is cancelled because of a strike, then an airline is obligated to give you a full refund or a replacement flight, whenever you are notified,” says Coby Benson, Flight Delay Compensation lawyer at Bott and Co. solicitors, which specialises in these matters. “If you are notified of the cancellation within 14 days of your scheduled departure, then you could be entitled to compensation.”
Whether or not you can apply for compensation, however, largely depends on the circumstances of the strike.
When am I entitled to compensation?
Under U.K. and EU law, an airline does not have to pay compensation if a delay or cancellation is caused by an “extraordinary circumstance”, such as lightning strikes, bad weather, terrorism, and so on.
Strikes, however, are not so clear cut, and under certain circumstances are considered under the airline’s control.
“If, for instance, the strike is staged by an airline’s own staff over pay and conditions, then the strike should not be considered an extraordinary circumstance,” says Benson. “The European Court of Justice itself has ruled that if staff are striking because of pay and working conditions, then that is part and parcel of running any business, including an airline. So if it’s an inherent part of a business, it can’t be extraordinary.”
He cites one recent case in which TUI tried to convince the European Court of Justice that a strike over pay and conditions was not within its control because the staff “pulled a collective last-minute sickie” rather than go through the proper striking process. “You could probably have some sympathy with TUI, but the ECJ said they are ultimately still striking over pay and conditions and so it is not an extraordinary circumstance,” says Benson. “It is part and parcel of running an airline.”
When is a strike deemed an ‘extraordinary circumstance’?
The easiest example, says Benson, is when the striking staff are not on the airline’s payroll and are third party contractors. “A frequent one is when Air Traffic Control staff strike, something that used to happen a lot in France. That seems to be outside the control of the airline.”
Hypothetically, he says, an airline’s staff might go on strike for political reasons, that have nothing to do with their treatment by the airline. In theory, if they joined, say, a picket line in solidarity with a separate cause, that would probably fall outside the control of the airline,” suggests Benson.
What if my flight is affected due to the knock-on effects of a strike?
In 2012, the European Court of Justice ruled that airlines should compensate passengers if they’re denied boarding because of a strike after the strike takes place.
In other words, if the strike is on a Monday, but your Tuesday flight is delayed or cancelled as a knock-on effect, you are still entitled to compensation. “It’s still the result of a strike,” says Benson. “Compensation is still payable ad you get a refund or a replacement flight.”
How much compensation am I entitled to?
Under current EU regulations — which still cover UK flights — you could be entitled to between £220 and £520, depending on the length of delay and distance of travel.
If your flight’s delayed for long enough, your airline also has to give you:
- food and drink
- access to phone calls and emails
- accommodation if you’re delayed overnight, as well as journeys between the airport and the hotel
What if an airline claims a strike is an ‘extraordinary circumstance’?
Well, this has happened. In 2018, Ryanair tried to get out of paying tens of thousands of passengers compensation whose flights were grounded by a series of pilot strikes by claiming the action was an “extraordinary circumstance”.
But, after two years of wrangling, the European Court of Justice ruled last February against the claim, ordering Ryanair to pay between £220 and £350 to affected passengers.
“This [ruling] offers a great deal of protection to passengers this Summer, with potentially several ongoing strikes from airline staff,” Adam Johnson, Legal Expert at Flightright, told TPG today. “The decision from the court confirmed that the strikes from which the cancellations arose… did not constitute ‘extraordinary circumstances’ whether or not the aims of the strikers were reasonable or achievable and notwithstanding the involvement of trade union.”
He added: “With the above decision on the side of passengers’ rights, then passengers who suffer a cancellation from any possible upcoming cancellations should claim for compensation.”
Ryanair, however, is currently appealing the ruling.
“The problem is, you have six years in which to make a claim,” adds Benson. “It’s now been four and a half years since that strike. So if it does go to the Supreme Court, then I think the six-year window to claim compensation will have closed and Ryanair’s achieved exactly what it wanted: people won’t be able to recover anything at all.”
What should I do if think I am owed compensation?
Your first port of call should be the airline itself. All airlines have a process through which you can apply for a refund if you believe the airline was at fault in denying you boarding.
This is an important first step because, according to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), some airlines have a clause in their T&Cs stating that when lodging a complaint, passengers must submit their claims directly to the airline, allowing the airline to respond directly to them before engaging third parties to claim on their behalf.
If an airline accepts liability, it may offer you compensation, or just a refund of your ticket. But a ticket refund may not come close to covering the peripheral expenses incurred by missing your flight (new flights, cancelled accommodation etc.).
How do I escalate my claim?
Your next step can be an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) provider.
An ADR is essentially a process that enables you to resolve a dispute you’re having with an airline without having to go to court.
Some airlines and airports are members of alternative dispute resolution bodies (ADR) and should provide you with the details of the relevant ADR scheme.
There are a number of ADR bodies so it is important to check which your airline belongs to (The CAA has a list on its ADR page). The main ones are:
AviationADR, for instance, counts among its members:
- Air France/KLM
- Virgin Atlantic
- Wizz Air
Another is the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR), which handles complaints about:
- British Airways
- Thomas Cook
- Austrian Airlines
- Brussels Airlines
- Scandinavian Airlines SAS
If the airline that has rejected your claim is not a member of an ADR scheme, and you are satisfied that you have a valid claim, then you can approach the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for help in arguing your case.
What’s the last resort?
If neither the ADR body nor the CAA can help, you could take your airline to court.
If you are concerned that your flight could be cancelled because of a possible upcoming strike, don’t immediately cancel and panic-book a new flight with another airline. Under most airlines’ T&C’s that would incur extra fees, not to mention the probability of paying for a much more expensive short-notice flight.
Be patient, and find out what the strike is about. If it is — as it usually is — the result of an action by airline staff over pay and conditions, you will at the very least be entitled to a full refund or seats on the next available flight to your destination. And if the airline gives you less than 14 days’ notice of the delay or cancellation, then you should also be entitled to up to £520 in compensation. Cancelling your flight could leave you in a much weaker position when it comes to reclaiming the costs of your alternative flight.
Featured: by Mimadeo / Getty Images.
Welcome to The Points Guy!