THERE is little doubt that Ryanair takes umbrage at EU261, a piece of European law that guarantees passengers compensation in the event of most flight delays and cancellations. Michael O’Leary, the low-cost carrier’s boss, insists that he complies with the “ridiculous” piece of legislation. But many say otherwise. Indeed, Mr O’Leary seems to revel in refusing to give out compensation; he once told a customer who dared to ask for one “you’re not getting a refund so fuck off”. Last year, when a pilot-rostering mishap grounded thousands of Ryanair flights, Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) accused it of “persistently misleading” customers about their rights. Which?, a British consumer group, agreed that Ryanair fell “woefully short” of its obligations. Media reports exposing poor treatment of passengers abounded. Yet, in the past five months, Gulliver has received two EU261 pay-outs from Ryanair. The circumstances surrounding them suggest that claims of customers being swindled are exaggerated.
Ryanair’s obligations under EU261 are crystal clear. If a short flight is delayed by more than two hours, refreshments must be provided free of charge. If the delay is over three hours, passengers are entitled to compensation of at least €250 ($310). If a flight is cancelled, they should be given a choice of either a full refund or a re-routing at “the earliest opportunity” (as well as compensation, if the cancellation was at short notice). Eligibility criteria and entitlements vary according to precise circumstances; for instance, flight distance, delay duration and re-routing itineraries. For the full picture see the European Union’s official website.
The get-out clause for airlines lies in arguing that “extraordinary circumstances” made the disruption unforeseeable, unavoidable and external. Many airlines–not just Ryanair–exploit this defence to avoid stumping up cash. Terrorism, industrial action by air-traffic controllers, extreme weather and hidden manufacturing defects are among the legitimate exemptions. Just as often as they are cited fairly, however, they are misappropriated. If a strike ends several hours before a delayed flight, for example, an airline cannot use knock-on disruption as an excuse; the onus rests on it to reboot operations in a swift and efficient manner. And if a technical problem is discovered during routine maintenance checks before departure, it cannot be labelled a “hidden defect”. The devil is in the detail, so claimants who are unwilling to push the airlines for evidence will inevitably be fobbed off.
In Ryanair’s case much of the recent criticism stems not from its dubious interpretation of the law, but its alleged deliberate obfuscation of it. The CAA and Which? believe that the carrier makes too little effort to notify customers of their rights. They have a point. During the pilot-rostering crisis, the airline was quick to offer passengers either a refund or a re-booked Ryanair flight. But it took more than a week for Mr O’Leary to admit that a third option is also enshrined in law: re-routing with another airline, at Ryanair’s expense. The company rarely uses the word “compensation” in its correspondence. Instead, it forces passengers to click on a hyperlink at the bottom of their emails to investigate their rights. Ryanair even skimps on refreshments. Its staff hand out refreshment vouchers worth £3.50 ($4.87) during delays, while EU rules state that customers can claim back several times as much later on.
Ryanair’s distaste for the letter, if not the spirit, of the law is understandable. Gulliver’s own experience of the compensation rules is illustrative. In September, his Edinburgh to London flight was one of the thousands cancelled by Ryanair. A pair of seats had cost just £34. Yet despite making alternative plans with minimal effort–an easy feat when travelling domestically–Gulliver received a full refund, plus €500 ($621) compensation, plus £160 in vouchers as a goodwill gesture. Three months later, to Gulliver’s additional delight, the very flight on which the vouchers were redeemed was delayed by over three hours. Spanning a distance of more than 1,500km, this flight from London to Timisoara in Romania netted Gulliver and his partner another €800, plus complimentary refreshments. Mrs Gulliver may have felt otherwise, but being paid €800 to sit in an airport pub sipping beer was a fine way to spend an evening.
The experience taught Gulliver two things. First, it is wrong to suggest that Ryanair does not honour its obligations under EU261. Yes, the company tries to throw passengers off the scent. But presented with a well-supported claim that demonstrates knowledge of the law, it will typically capitulate. Had Gulliver not been so fastidious, Ryanair could have used any number of pretexts to deny compensation. It knows that most claimants will quickly throw in the towel. But they ought not: Ryanair has signed up to the CAA-backed Alternative Dispute Resolution scheme, which offers free arbitration for rejected claims.
The bigger lesson, however, is one of fairness. The purpose of the law is to give airlines a strong financial incentive to operate their schedules as promised to passengers even when there is an otherwise strong commercial case to cancel them at the last minute due to low bookings. But in terms of compensating passengers who have suffered emotional or financial loss due to delays, the rules are hit and miss. Although Ryanair has done much to brush up its customer service, its mistreatment of some passengers is still disturbing. Tales abound of passengers being denied compensation after Ryanair dumped them in the middle of nowhere in the early hours of the morning due to flight diversions. Leaving travellers stranded without compensation is inexcusable. Such individuals deserve every penny they can get under EU261. But Gulliver did not. The compensation he received had no relation to the costs or inconvenience caused. Perhaps if EU261 were re-written to reflect this more closely, Ryanair and others would have less incentive–and scope–for evasiveness. Until that happens, Mr O’Leary is right to call it a “ridiculous” law.
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