Do Airlines Need To Be Legally Held To Account For Letting Passengers Down?

Ryanair aeroplane

Airlines are constantly refusing to live up to their obligations when it comes to customer care, even when it is required by law. Is it time they are held to account?

Customer service, it isn’t that hard is it? As airline passengers we all understand things go wrong from time to time, there are often genuine reasons for delays and cancellations, it happens. The problem is when delays and cancellations are met with silence or even worse, outright dismissive contempt, then that escalates the situation and leads to justified calls for someone to be held to account.

And because of their almost blanket attitude toward customers, this is the situation airlines found themselves in now, and it is about time serious questions are asked about exactly how airlines behave.

Airport arrivals international travel

I mean don’t get me wrong I absolutely love flying, I love airports and I love the fact that I can travel anywhere in the world thanks to these airlines, and to some extent – like most reasonable people – I can even put up with the occasional problem or delay.

But when airlines don’t live up to their ethical or professional obligations to take care of their passengers when things do go wrong it makes the situation infinitely worse for everyone involved and when they blatantly disregard legal imperatives to force them to observe those responsibilities, then in my opinion that moves the situation from an unavoidable problem that would have been an annoyance but still left the airline with a lot of good will, to a situation where the airline involved needs to be held to account, punitively if necessary.

I mean just imagine the tempers that could be diffused with a bit of communication and fair treatment.

Imagine the good will and customer loyalty that would be gained if an airline simply provided enough staff on the ground during a delay or cancellation.

Imagine how different passenger responses would be if they turned around immediately and said look, we messed up, or this delay can’t be avoided thanks to this or that reason, we are really sorry, but here is a list of your passenger rights along with some food and water, we will get everyone onto the next flights as soon as possible if you would like to join this queue, and for those that need it, go and speak to Bob over there and he will arrange a nice hotel room and transport until we can.

Is that really so hard? Really?

Because that is not what happens is it? And for what reason? So airlines can try and fob people off and save a bit of money in the short term? Just look at what they are losing in the long term with reputation and customer loyalty!

What other industry in the world would be allowed to take a customers money, decide on a whim to cancel the service and then say tough luck, extraordinary circumstances you can’t have your money back?

Now to be fair, there are some airlines that do sometimes get it right. Singapore Airlines seemed to be absolutely spot on with their customer care in this viral instance,  and I am sure there are some out there who have had positive experiences with many airlines, but it is far from the norm. I fly very regularly and have faced numerous delays and cancellations, and I can count on one hand the times when that has been handled really well by the airline, and still have three fingers to spare.

My last flight that was delayed actually involved gate staff that lied directly to my face. The member of staff at first stated that they weren’t obliged to get me on another flight and tried to get me to pay for one myself if I wanted one, then when pressed said the next flight with them wasn’t until late the next day and they didn’t have to get me a flight any sooner because they weren’t obligated to use other carriers. It was only after I stood my ground and quoted the law – and the rules directly given from the Civil Avitation Authority – to them that she rang her C.O and surprise surprise, a flight on another carrier was booked for a few hours later. Still delayed of course, but better than the next day.

It wasn’t so much the delay that made me angry, that was an annoyance of course but not the end of the world, it was the way they routinely lied to me an tried to fob me off.

It was almost as if they were trained to do everything in their power to not render – or pay for – assistance or care unless it was absolutely necessary.

And this is not an uncommon occurrence.

United Airlines economy class travel criticism

Only recently the Dutch airline KLM have been refusing to book hotels for stranded passengers after cancelled flights and have been caught out lying about the reasons why when they know full well they are effectively breaking the law. And what makes this so egregious they even handed passengers proof in the form of a black and white letter saying why they wouldn’t do it!

WOW Air, the budget airline recently left passengers stranded on both sides of the Atlantic when it suddenly ceased operations and cancelled all flights, with no warning to potential flyers despite weeks of warning signs and tickets being sold right up until the last minute.

British Airways has been taken to court numerous times over failing to give reasonable care and compensation to stranded passengers, often waiting right up until the day before court to pay a settlement and avoid the court hearing.

Easyjet have one of the worst reputations for customer service according to leading consumer watchdogs, with complaints ranging from overbooking and cancelling flights with no warning, refusing to pay for hotels, leaving passengers stranded at the airport at the last minute with no assistance and even putting up legal obstacles when passengers try and claim for expenses due to delayed or cancelled flights and compensation.

Ryanair has repeatedly ignored warnings from the Civil Aviation Authority and the law by refusing to pay out compensation to passengers for delayed and cancelled flights, even after losing one major stand off with them previously.

These few examples are far from rare however and there is no airline that hasn’t fallen short on customer care. Many airlines are in fact regularly refusing to pay out on legal and justified compensation claims, knowing that the Civil Aviation Authority has no real teeth and they won’t be held to account unless individual passengers take legal action themselves.

Airlines will lie, obfuscate, fob off or even ignore passengers completely in an attempt to get away with not living up to their duty of care or their responsibilities toward their customers. And it needs to stop. Now. 

Airlines effectively try and get away with doing as little as possible in an attempt to try and save money, and leave it up to passengers to know and demand their rights, effectively only fulfilling their duty of care when they are forced to.

This is wrong.

I mean airlines aren’t doing us a favour by allowing us to fly with them, we are paying customers who have every right to expect them to fulfill the contract we agreed on when we paid for their services. If they cannot fulfill their end of that contract then it is not unreasonable to expect them to go out of their way to look after passengers instead of turning round and saying ‘tough luck, we have your money now so you are on your own’.

Unfortunately it seems like the only way airlines can be held to account is to hit them where it hurts, in their pockets, and to call for as much punitive action as the law allows.

This means first of all raising awareness among all passengers as much as possible about the individual rights they have when things go wrong, and urging each and every passenger to complain and pursue compensation when they do, and secondly using legal firms when necessary to take things to that next level and show airlines that they cannot simply treat their customers like this.

So what are your rights under EU law?

Under the EU passenger rights legislation, commonly referred to as EU law 261/2004, you actually have a lot of rights if your flight is to, from or within the European Union. This means:

  • Any flight departing from any EU airport, or
  • Any EU airline flight arriving at an EU airport.

The law states very specifically that passengers have a whole list of rights dependent on the type and length of delay or cancellation, and airlines have a legal obligation toward passenger care.

It is actually quite simple, if there is a delay of 3 hours or more then the airlines are obligated to provide passengers with a package of care and financial compensation, for 5 hours or more or if the flight is cancelled, then they are obligated to offer all passengers a new flight as quickly as possible, the same compensation, a hotel room for the night if needed, transportation to get there and meals until a new flight can be found.

The big problem is that the majority of passengers aren’t aware of these laws and many airlines refuse to follow them, relying on passengers ignorance or apathy to get away with fobbing them off.

Airlines are obliged by law in the EU to make sure they actively offer this assistance, and passengers should not be left stranded and having to sort things out for themselves.

Airlines need to do better. Now.

From today I am calling for airlines to do better. To be better.

All I am asking for is for customers to be treated with respect, and given the assistance and compensation they deserve when things go wrong. Is that really to much to ask for?

Is it really so hard to not only just comply with the law, but go above and beyond and just make a bad situation better by helping people and being nice?

As I have said many times, we all know and understand that things go wrong from time to time, but don’t leave a plane load of stranded passengers to get increasingly angry and frustrated at the gate, and then even more angry 18 months later when you are still ignoring their compensation claims.

Just help them. Be nice.

The importance of good customer service.

I understand nice is not part of the normal busines lexicon, but it should be. It should be an absolute given that customer service is essential in any business. In any other industry it is considered an absolute imperative if a business wants to survive, and is a given that to provide good customer service then the customer must come first.

But this is not the approach airlines are taking. It seems like they are the only industry where the rule of customer service doesn’t apply.

The benefits to the airlines if they would take this approach this are immeasurable, if not entirely quantifiable. Of course customer satisfaction ratings would go up and complaints down in the short term, but how can they put a price on positive publicity as opposed to the entirely negative press storm they are almost all getting now, how can they put a price on genuine customer loyalty and a good reputation? Because if you treat your customers well, that is what you will get.

Until that happens all passengers have to know their legal rights, they have to start demanding them, and they have to start aggressively – and legally – pursuing them if they are denied.

The only way the airlines will change, the only way they start to listen, is when they are legally challenged. So I urge you all to demand your rights under the law in the first instance, and then each and every time there is a delay or a cancellation, file a legal claim for your compensation.

Make sure that airlines know that they just can’t get away with treating passengers with contempt anymore.

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, freelance travel writer and founder of Bemused Backpacker. He is also a charge nurse by vocation with an interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine, but his real passion is travel. Since finding his wanderlust a decade ago in South East Asia, he has bounced from one end of the planet to another and has no intention of slowing down.

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12 comments on “Do Airlines Need To Be Legally Held To Account For Letting Passengers Down?
  1. Ian says:

    Yes! Absolutely! Sick of ryanair and their ilk just getting away with doing what they want.

  2. Olivia says:

    My last flight with Ryanair was just cancelled with no notice (we were already at the airport) by the recent winter weather and I have had a nightmare of a time trying to get any apology or compensation from them. We were just ignored at the airport and noone was there to help us. Three months later and despite repeated calls and emails they are now just ignoring me. They even told me I am not entitled to compensation or a refund. What do you think my chances of a refund are?? I am sick and disgusted with Ryanair and will never fly them again. If something goes wrong they are just not interested.

  3. Dale says:

    You are right, there really does need to be some new laws and regulations around what airlines can get away with, either that or the aviation authorities need to start punishing them when they leave passengers stranded or won’t pay out compensation. I don’t see that happening anytime soon though.

  4. Sue Riley says:

    Yes! I have given up on claiming with Ryanair now, and flying with them too. My last few flights were all delayed, all over three hours, and all my claims were dismissed and ignored. Never flying with them again.

  5. James says:

    Yes!! I wish someone would hold them to account. They just can’t keep taking peoples money and treating them like they do.

  6. Gareth says:

    I am definitely thinking of going down the legal route with them, I have been left €150 out of pocket because they cancelled my flight, said that I should get a refund and then have been blatantly ignoring me for 5 months now. This is criminal what they are doing. Any advice you can give?

    • Definitely persevere with it Gareth, there are plenty of solicitors that will pursue the legal side for you and the cut they take can be worth the effort of doing it yourself, but doing it yourself isn’t that difficult either. Either way keep at it! That money is yours by right.

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