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What ‘Force Majeure’ Means, and Why You Need to Know

When you purchase travel from an airline or another operator, you enter into a contract for a service or goods. And if some unforeseen calamity prevents the seller from delivering the promised goods or services, the seller can claim “force majeure” as a basis for terminating the contract without incurring any liability for breach of contract.

The term is a dubious one taken from the 1804 Code Napoleon, and refers to occurrences beyond the reasonable control of a party to a contract that prevents fulfillment. It’s similar to “acts of God” and “frustration of purpose.” As such, the concept extends back centuries in common law.

It usually refers to natural disasters, and most would consider the COVID-19 pandemic a force majeure. So if the pandemic prevents an airline, hotel, or some other travel supplier from fulfilling a contract with you, you can’t really file a legal claim for breach of contract: That’s a fair and traditional use of force majeure.

But, some dishonest suppliers claim that force majeure means they don’t have to refund the money you’ve paid them when they can’t fulfill their end of the contract. So far there has been nothing upholding that position; if there’s force majeure, you’re still entitled to your money back. Don’t fall for it if some supplier tries to get out of refunding your money by claiming force majeure, but also don’t assume you have any right to the service or to file a claim against an airline.

As we recently reported in our guide to canceling a trip during the pandemic: The airline companies are not directly liable for disruptions caused by COVID-19; therefore, passenger-rights groups like AirHelp have said they will not be pursuing additional compensation for affected flights.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

By Ed Perkins

A nationally recognized reporter, writer, and consumer advocate, Ed Perkins focuses on how travelers can find the best deals and avoid scams.

He is the author of "Online Travel" (2000) and "Business Travel: When It's Your Money" (2004), the first step-by-step guide specifically written for small business and self-employed professional travelers. He was also the co-author of the annual "Best Travel Deals" series from Consumers Union.

Perkins' advice for business travelers is featured on MyBusinessTravel.com, a website devoted to helping small business and self-employed professional travelers find the best value for their travel dollars.

Perkins was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, one of the country's most influential travel publications, from which he retired in 1998. He has also written for Business Traveller magazine (London).

Perkins' travel expertise has led to frequent television appearances, including ABC's "Good Morning America" and "This Week with David Brinkley," "The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather," CNN, and numerous local TV and radio stations.

Before editing Consumer Reports Travel Letter, Perkins spent 25 years in travel research and consulting with assignments ranging from national tourism development strategies to the design of computer-based tourism models.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, Perkins lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife.

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