The European Union has the most passenger friendly regulations anywhere in the world, which comes in the form of their EC261 policy.
EC261 applies to:
- Flights departing from a European Union airport on any airline
- Flights traveling to a European Union airport on a European Union airline
- In other words, for non-European Union airlines this only applies to flights departing the EU, and not flights to the EU
How does EC261 apply in light of COVID-19?
There has been some confusion (both among airlines and consumers) regarding what EC261 policies apply in light of the current circumstances.
For example, under normal circumstances EC261 would entitle consumers to up to 600EUR in cash compensation in the event of a flight delay or last minute cancelation.
The question has been whether the current situation is considered “extraordinary circumstances” for the purposes of passenger care, compensation, and refunds. The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes, and the European Union has today clarified the policy in detail.
Here’s what you should expect:
Expect cash refunds if your flight is canceled
A lot of airlines have been trying to get out of this, but under EC261 you’re entitled to a cash refund or rerouting in the event that your flight is canceled. That still applies now, despite the extraordinary circumstances.
Some airlines are trying to get away with just giving people a voucher in the event their flight is canceled as a way of preserving cash, but the European Union has ruled that a cash refund is necessary.
Similar regulations apply in the US, according to the Department of Transportation.
Don’t expect cash compensation for delays & cancelations
With EC261 you’re entitled to 250-600EUR cash compensation in the event that your flight is delayed or canceled (if it’s done within 14 days of departure), unless the cancelation is due to “extraordinary circumstances.” It has been ruled that all coronavirus-related cancelations are “extraordinary” for these purposes. This includes:
- Cancelations due to government restrictions
- Cancelations due to protecting the health and safety of the crew
- “Where the flight cancellation occurs in circumstances where the corresponding movement of persons is not entirely prohibited, but limited to persons benefitting from derogations (for example nationals or residents of the state concerned)”
- “Depending on the circumstances, this may also be the case in respect of flights in the direction opposite to the flights directly concerned by the ban on the movement of persons”
This regulation broadly gives airlines the opportunity to not provide compensation in the event that flights are canceled due to lack of demand resulting from coronavirus. Frankly I think that’s fair enough, since this entire situation is unprecedented, and airlines are struggling enough.
Expect duty of care
Airlines won’t be happy about this, but under this ruling, airlines still have a duty of care in the event that flights are canceled, even in light of the current situation. This care includes providing meals, accommodation, and transportation, for as long as is needed to get the passenger on the way:
“The right to care subsists only as long as passengers have to wait for a rerouting at the earliest convenience.”
If passengers choose not to travel and cancel their flight then there’s no duty to care anymore, but this ruling potentially opens airlines up to some pretty major liability.
For example, if you become stuck somewhere due to government restrictions, it would be on the airline to provide accommodation for as long as you’re stuck before you can return home.
It’s nice to get some clarity regarding EC261 in this environment. I think it’s totally reasonable that airlines shouldn’t owe cash compensation for cancelations at the moment arising from the COVID-19 situation.
However, airlines do have to provide cash refunds, which many have been trying to avoid doing, though I suspect that will now change.
Lastly, arguably this decision is very pro-consumer when you consider the airline has the duty to provide accommodation and food for as long as a passenger is stranded, even if it’s due to government regulations.
(Tip of the hat to You Have Been Upgraded)