by Oliver Smith, The Telegraph, May 15, 2018
Consider which of the following air travel scenarios sounds worse. A three-hour delay, followed by an otherwise smooth and comfortable journey – or a 12-hour flight with no entertainment, a broken seat, and no food?
I’d wager most people would take three hours of suffering in an airport over 12 hours of suffering in the sky. Curiously, however, the former scenario - so long as “extraordinary circumstances” are not to blame and it is a flight to or from an EU airport - entitles the unlucky traveller to cash compensation of up to £265, while the latter entitles them to absolutely nothing.
It’s a strange discrepancy I was unaware of until a recent flight to Costa Rica. Twenty minutes after take-off, just as I was settling in for a few episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, a cabin crew announcement interrupted the broadcast.
“We regret to inform passengers that we are experiencing a few problems with…” Cue 300 hearts in mouths and murmured prayers. The landing gear? The left engine? Tell me!
“...the in-flight entertainment system.” Oh, thank God.
It transpired that a small section of the plane wasn’t able to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, or anything else for that matter.
“We’re going to reboot the system, which should hopefully sort out the problem,” said the senior flight attendant. Except it didn’t. Once the system launched again, none of the screens on board would work.
Staff tried turning it off and on again - the greatest IT fix ever devised - not once, not twice, but three more times. All to no avail. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, someone once said.
The cabin crew, it must be said, particularly the head of the team, dealt with the problem admirably – this certainly wasn’t their fault, and nobody blamed them. Nevertheless, we were forced to come to terms with an 11-hour journey without distractions. Luckily, I had a good book and music on my phone. But I saw others - mostly older, digitally-unsavvy folk - reduced to leafing idly through their in-flight magazine before embarking on a staring contest with the seat in front. For 11 hours.
All passengers were later asked to fill out feedback forms. I presumed this was to ensure we’d be properly compensated and flight attendants told us someone would be in touch “in a few days”. But almost two weeks later my girlfriend and I had heard nothing. She contacted the airline on Twitter, asking for an update, and the following day was emailed a voucher for £95 off a future flight. We felt this was - just about - reasonable. Maybe a touch stingy. A return flight to Costa Rica starts at £600, after all, and we weren’t getting any money back, just an incentive to book another service.
But then we spotted tweets suggesting other people who had suffered the same misfortune, with the same airline, were being offered less. One was handed a voucher for just £20.
I’m really not one to champion a compensation culture. The EU rules for flight delays, outlined above, seem over-the-top. A low-cost airline, which sells seats for as little as £30, can end up with a bill of £50,000 for one three-hour delay. But it’s odd that, at best, a measly voucher is all you’ll get after a flight from hell.
I contacted the Civil Aviation Authority, Britain’s aviation regulator. A spokesman agreed that neither £20 nor £95 sounded like fair compensation for a significant fault on a long-haul flight. But he added that, legally speaking, there is nothing compelling airlines to pay up when things go wrong on board - whether that means a busted monitor, a broken seat, a shortage of food or an overflowing toilet.
“It really is up to the airline to do as they see fit,” he added. Which would appear to mean paying what they think they can get away with. Indeed, the internet is awash with stories of in-flight mishaps on a variety of carriers, countless demands for compensation, and wildly varying outcomes.
The CAA added: “If passengers are not satisfied by the response from the airline, they can seek redress via Alternative Dispute Resolution Services, which will independently review the claim and make a decision, which is binding on the airline. Where an airline is not signed up to the Alternative Dispute Resolution Service [most major airlines flying to and from the UK, including Ryanair, easyJet and BA, are], passengers would need to pursue their claim through the small claims process.”
I asked a clutch of airlines to reveal how much they offer when things go awry, outlining a number of possible scenarios, including a broken seat, faulty air con, an overflowing toilet and a lack of food. Not one was willing to name a cash figure.
“Our cabin crew are empowered to resolve any issues that may occur during a flight,” said Virgin Atlantic. “This could include offering an alternative seat, arranging food from a different cabin, offering a glass of champagne or offering a goodwill gesture of Flying Club miles. However, if the customer still remains unhappy then the crew will escalate to our Customer Relations team who will contact the customer to resolve the issue.”
BA said: “We strive to provide the best possible travel experience for all our customers, so we’re naturally disappointed to hear when, on the rare occasion, the experience hasn't lived up to expectations. Although it doesn’t happen often, our team will work hard to resolve any issues as quickly as possible.”
Ryanair, in trademark fashion, appeared to insist nothing has ever gone wrong on any of its planes. “Our aircraft have an average fleet age of just 6.5 years and we have a maintenance programme to ensure there are no issues with broken toilets, air con or heating,” said a spokesman.
United, however, offered a little more insight. Its statement might help explain the discrepancies when it comes to how much passengers are offered.
“If it is not possible to move the passenger, our flight attendants do have the ability to offer on-the-spot compensation,” it said. “The compensation is based on a number of factors: customer status, cabin (premium vs. economy), severity (minor, moderate, severe) and if the flight is domestic or international. If the customer does not receive compensation on board, they can also contact United Customer Care where they will be offered similar compensation.”
The figure you get, therefore - for United, at least - depends on how much you paid for your seat, the distance travelled, your loyalty to the airline, and just how bad the problem was (the only matter left to debate).
So, should something go wrong on your next flight, cite factors like these when you’re seeking redress.
You might get £20. You might get £95. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get whisked directly to the spare seat in first class.