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Air Travel

November 19, 2009

If an airline, airport or tour operator has ruined your travel arrangements, your baggage has been lost or you have been ‘bumped’ off your flight, you can make a complaint.

How can you complain?

Try to speak to someone on the spot. They might be able to sort out your problem straight away. If you are still not happy, try to find out who is responsible for what went wrong (it may not be the airline). Make a note of staff names, times and any other relevant information.

Write a letter to the customer relations department of either the airline, the tour organiser or operator of your package holiday, or the airport (depending on whose services you are complaining about). Briefly explain what went wrong and say what you expect to be done about your complaint. State whether you want compensation, and if so, how much you would expect.

Keep copies of all correspondence. Send copies of tickets or receipts with your first letter of complaint, but keep the originals. If you are claiming a refund the airline or travel agent will need the original tickets eventually, but keep them until you have a promise of a refund in writing. Airlines should respond to your letter within 6 weeks.

If you have already made a written complaint to an airline or airport but are not satisfied with the outcome, contact the Air Transport Users Council (ATUC) CAA House, 45-59 Kingsway, London WC2B 6TE (Tel: 020 7240 6061 (consumer advice 2-5pm Mon-Fri); Fax: 020 7240 7071)

Write to them outlining your complaint and send copies of your correspondence with the airline or airport. They should reply to your letter within 14 days.

ATUC are an arbitration service between the customer and service provider. They cannot take up complaints against tour operators or travel agents, but you can telephone them for advice.

What grounds do you have to complain?

Cancelled flights

If your flight is cancelled, or there is a change of schedule, the airline must either offer you alternative arrangements or give you your money back. In some circumstances, an airline may be liable for damages for delay under the terms of the Warsaw Convention. You may need to go to court to prove your loss in order to get compensation.

Overbooked flights

You may turn up at the airport to be told that the flight has been ‘overbooked’ and there are no seats left on the plane, even though you have a confirmed reservation. If this happens to you anywhere in the European Union, under the Denied Boarding Compensation Regulation (DBC) you are legally entitled to on-the-spot cash compensation given to you by the airline. To claim compensation you must have:

  • a valid ticket
  • a confirmed reservation (that is, the status on your ticket is “OK”)
  • checked-in by the deadline

If you meet these conditions the airline must give you three forms of compensation:

A choice of:

  • a full refund on your ticket, or
  • another flight as soon as possible, or
  • another flight at a later date of your choice

The airline must pay you compensation in cash. They may offer you vouchers instead of cash, but you are entitled to cash and can insist on receiving it in that form. The minimum amount the airline must give you is set out in the regulation, and depends on the length of your flight and on how late you are getting to your final destination.

The airline must pay for incidental expenses. These are specified in the regulation as:

  • getting a message to your destination
  • meals and refreshments (these must be provided ‘in relation to the waiting time’)
  • hotel accommodation if you are delayed overnight

The regulation applies to all scheduled airlines – not just European ones. Charter flights are not covered by the regulation. You cannot claim DBC if you have a free or reduced-rate ticket that is not available to the public.

Lost/damaged baggage

If your checked-in luggage does not arrive at the other end, or if it turns up damaged, you must report this to airline staff, or a customer services desk, before you leave the luggage collection area. You will be given a special form, called a Property Irregularity Report (PIR), that you should fill in immediately and keep a copy for yourself. You will need this – together with the baggage receipt you were given at check-in – if you later want to claim compensation from the airline or from your travel insurance. A PIR does not count as a claim against the airline and you should still make your claim in writing within seven days.

Airlines have a legal obligation to pay compensation for lost or damaged luggage, but the amount is based on weight, not the cash value of your possessions. If your baggage goes astray on the outward journey, most airlines will usually give you some cash for immediate supplies, although you may have to ask for it. On a homebound journey you will not get anything immediately, as the airline will assume you have everything at home.

The airline should contact you when your bag turns up, but call them to check on progress in tracing it. When they find it they should deliver it to you at their expense.

If your bag is permanently lost you might have to wait for anything up to two months before the airline will admit to this and begin to look at your claim for compensation. If they have given you cash to buy emergency supplies they may deduct the sum from the compensation due to you.

Other complaints

You can also complain about airline services such as:

  • in-flight service
  • check-in and security procedures
  • flight delays, diversions and cancellations
  • an airline going bust

Complaints about airport services could be about:

  • airport information
  • car parking and travel to and from the airport
  • quality of airport facilities and/or service

Will you get a fair hearing?

The AUC is funded by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), but its independence and authority are well recognised. Employees of the CAA are not allowed to be members of the AUC. Members are appointed as individuals and not as delegates of any particular interest group. It was set up to make reports and recommendations to further the interests of all UK air transport users.

What will happen if you’re successful?

You may be entitled to compensation from the airline (see above). However, the ATUC has no power to make service providers accept their views. It has no legal status and cannot arbitrate on claims for refunds or compensation if the service provider will not concede.

Anything else you can do?

You may be able to take your case to the small claims court, particularly if seeking financial compensation.

If you have a complaint against a tour operator or a travel agent, first find out if the company is a member of a trade association such as the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), the Air Travel Organiser’s Licensing (ATOL), or the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO). These associations have codes of conduct for their members. Both ABTA and AITO offer arbitration procedures through which customers can pursue complaints. Your tour operator’s brochure or travel agent’s invoice will tell you if they are members of an association.