Anyone who’s experienced a flight delay or cancellation knows the pain these events can bring.  All one’s carefully laid plans can be blown away with a simple one hour delay.  You can miss your connection, your bags might not make it to the destination, and whoever is waiting for you at the other side will be inconvenienced as well.  One delayed flight can impact thousands of people.

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What should have been a routine flight for my wife and I from Rome to London with a connection in between turned into a huge ordeal.  What started out as a 30 minute delay turned into one hour, then two, and finally four hours.

To make matters worse, the substitute flight we were given flew into a different airport than the one we were supposed to go to.  This little logistic mix-up led to another one hour delay and a £100 taxi ride.  To top it all off, our bags didn’t make the connection!

Needless to say, we were extremely frustrated by the whole ordeal.  Let’s talk about air travel and passenger rights.

Passenger Rights In Europe

The European Commission sets out what rights passengers have:

You are entitled to care by the airline (phone call, refreshments, meal, accommodation, transportation to the place of accommodation) if the delay is:

  • two hours or more for flights of 1,500 km or less;
  • three hours or more for longer flights within the European Union or for other flights of between 1,500 and 3,500 km;
  • four hours or more for flights of over 3,500 km outside the European Union.

If the delay is more than five hours, and you decide not to continue your journey, you are also entitled to have your ticket reimbursed and be flown back to where you originally started your journey.

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Since our delay was longer than four hours we were entitled to the services listed above.  The airline provided us with a voucher for about $12 which we could use inside the airport to get food and a drink.

When we called to complain about the delay, the person on the phone also mentioned the accommodation option, but we didn’t need to take it.

Passenger Rights In Canada

To compare this with a Canadian carrier, here is Air Canada’s view:

“In the case of delays caused by Air Canada which are expected to last longer than four hours, we will offer a voucher for use at an airport restaurant or for our Onboard Cafe© service.  We will also communicate with you at regular intervals to provide an update on the flight status with the latest, most accurate information available.  In the case of an unplanned overnight stay caused by Air Canada, we will provide out-of-town customers with meal vouchers, transportation to and from the airport as well as hotel accommodations (subject to availability).”

Right away we can see differences in the rights of passengers.  Where Air Canada will provide a voucher for food after four hours, European carriers will provide this in two hours for flights less than 1,500km.

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In Canada, there is no government backed bill to standardize passenger rights so each airline can set its own policy.  This creates an uneven playing field which is detrimental to both the airlines and passengers.  The government should step in and create some consistency like Europe or other countries already have.

While trying to research this topic further, I tried to find out about Canada’s Flight Rights program.  Unfortunately, the Transport Canada website returns a ‘404 not found error’ when I try to reach the site.  Perhaps this means the program is being re-written, but somehow I doubt it!

There at least seems to be some progress on compensation for bumped passengers with the Canadian Transport Agency indicating that passengers should be entitled to higher compensation than they are given today.

Communication

Besides cash payouts and hotel stays, one of the most important things for airlines to get right is passenger communication.  The biggest issue my wife and I had with our four hour ordeal was that the ground staff had no idea what was happening.

There were no announcements or other proactive communications on the ground to let the hundreds of waiting people know what was going on behind the scenes.  A little communication would have gone a long way to calm frayed nerves.  Less irate passengers would equal fewer complaints and fewer payouts.

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One thing is for sure, as passengers we should know our rights, preferably before we get on a plane.  If something does go wrong, pray that your air carrier will come through for you but don’t set your expectations too high!

We’re still waiting for our bags two days after the flight.  Has anyone else had a similar ordeal?  How did you fight back?

Andrew is a Canadian personal finance and investing blogger who recently moved to London, England.  He has a background in technology and a passion for travel.  His blog, She Thinks I’m Cheap aims to help Canadians build wealth by sharing facts, stories and advice.


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