Booking Strategy

Trust in Airlines Hits All-Time Low Thanks to Disruptions

Turns out travelers aren’t exactly thankful for airlines this holiday season, mostly due to frequent flight disruptions. A new study from AirHelp shows that 55 percent of U.S. air travelers don’t trust airlines to fairly handle their compensation claims following late or canceled flights.

AirHelp surveyed over 10,000 travelers from around the world, and found that in general no one really expects airlines to step up in situations like this. Roughly 25 percent of travelers in the survey say they don’t bother filing compensation claims at all because they assume the airlines won’t listen.

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And 73 percent of U.S. travelers who did make a claim gave up after the airline rejected their initial claim, despite many believing there was no good reason (or no reason at all) to reject the claim.

This paints a rather grim picture of air travel this year: Airlines’ reputation for being unreliable and difficult when it comes to compensation claims is so strong that many travelers don’t even bother pursuing them. A cynical observer could conclude this is exactly the point; turn the restitution process into such a headache that travelers stop bothering. Whether that’s the case or not, it’s clear from this survey that most travelers believe the deck is not stacked in their favor. But they also might now know the extent of their rights.

Lack of Awareness of Passenger Rights Laws

Travelers are also in the dark regarding their actual rights. Only a third know they can receive hundreds of dollars from European airlines in the event of a flight disruption, and 81 percent of U.S. passengers don’t realize they qualify for compensation at all, including on European carriers. After all, the E.U. governs airlines based on the carrier’s citizenship, not the passenger’s.

But U.S. airlines could also owe you something. For example, if an airline bumps you from a flight, it owes you 200 percent of the one-way fare, with a $675 maximum, if it can’t get you to your destination within two hours; or 400 percent with a maximum of $1,350 if the delay is more than four hours. Those time limits double for international flights. Download SmarterTravel’s Air Passenger Rights Guide and Flight Cancellation Rights Guide for quick access when you think an airline might owe you something.

As SmarterTravel often reminds readers, and as Forbes recently reminded travelers: “An E.U. regulation known as EC261 entitles passengers on E.U.-based carriers operating anywhere in the world, and those departing Europe aboard non-E.U. airlines to receive up to $650 if their flight is cancelled or delayed more than three hours, or if they are denied boarding even though the airline sold them a ticket for that flight.”

AirHelp contends that despite this law, European carriers nevertheless make it difficult for travelers to get the compensation they are legally entitled to receive.

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Sadly, no such law exists in the U.S., but travelers can seek compensation for similar disruptions, both from their airline and the Department of Transportation. But as long as no laws exist, the burden is on the traveler to not only pursue compensation, but determine exactly what sort of compensation should be given. The only time compensation is required in the U.S. is when a passenger is bumped from a flight: Airlines will try to placate travelers with food vouchers and other non-cash offers, which  often come with short expiration dates or other restrictions. Remember that you can always ask for cash, instead, when you’re bumped.

Bottom line? When it comes to flight disruptions, airlines will try to get away with as little compensation as possible. Whether this means shirking actual laws or simply ignoring their moral obligation, the goal is to end up paying as little as possible to travelers affected by delays and cancellations. For travelers, it’s imperative that you know your rights, understand the “value” of your disruption, and pursue appropriate compensation as far as you can handle. Especially going into the busy holiday travel season, and again when the travel high season of summer rolls around.

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By Carl Unger

Contributing Editor Carl Unger believes that every trip is worth taking. He loves an extended trip to Europe as much as he enjoys exploring the towns and landscape near home. Basically, you'll find him wherever there is good food, fresh air, and plenty of stories to bring home.

Carl has been writing for SmarterTravel since 2005. His travel writing has also appeared on USA Today and the Boston travel guide.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "It's not revolutionary, but a small Moleskine notebook is my one travel must-have. It's great for noting things you want to remember and it takes up hardly any space in your bag."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Japan. I'd love to take a month off and visit the cities, temples, and countryside. I'm fascinated by the country's juxtaposition of ancient traditions and modern ambitions."

Travel Motto: “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” –Terry Pratchett

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