For the last two weeks I have been engaged in providing commentary on Consumer Rights, following the Ryanair flight cancellations. It is important for consumers to understand why this situation has arisen. Wide speculation has delivered the conclusion that the airline has changed the annual leave period for its staff, thus causing staffing difficulties and allegedly compounded by pilots leaving the airline. Ryanair is quite clear that the question of pilots departing for other carriers is not as widespread as some commentators have claimed; the change to the annual leave period masks what lies at the heart of this difficult problem.
This problem arose because the Irish Regulatory Authorities (Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) and/or the Commission for Aviation Regulation (CAR)) apparently interpreted the term 'calendar year' differently to the other 27 Member States of the EU when implementing limitations on pilots annual flight hours. The result was that Irish Airlines allegedly had the capability to 'frontload' their 'calendar year' with crew activity along with increased schedules and in quieter months, returning crew members to the subs-bench when they were not needed. This has been a 'live' issue since 2008 and despite a two year implementation period given in 2014, it was not until the beginning of 2017, when the Irish Regulator(s) and Irish Airlines came into step with the rest of the EU.
Whilst the airline is ultimately responsible for ensuring it delivers its service and Consumer Rights to passengers, it is important to stress that the failure to implement Regulation, which cuts to the heart of passenger safety and their rights, also falls at the door of the Irish Regulator(s) and indeed the European Commission.
So whilst Consumers should keep in mind that these additional parties could also form part of any complaint/action they intend to take, they need to understand what Rights they can invoke to help them deal with this difficult scenario.
In the first instance, you should refer to EC Regulation 261/2004 on Air Passenger Rights. The primary right is contained in Article 5 which deals specifically with flight cancellations. In particular it refers to Article 8 where the airline has to either provide you with a refund in 7 days or re-routing on comparable transport conditions at the earliest opportunity. Under that Article you can opt for re-routing at a later date and if you are provided with an alternative departure or arrival airport, then the additional costs of travel should be covered. Importantly, Article 9 provides you with care in the event of cancellation; this will include meals, refreshments, calls or a stay in a hotel.
In the first flush of these cancellations, many consumers received very little notice. Article 5 is clear; if you have received less than 2 weeks notice (there is a varying period) and you do not depart or arrive within certain timeframes on the original date of departure, then you are entitled to compensation under Article 7. This details compensation, ranging between €250 & €600, depending on the distance of your flight. Article 7 goes on to say that if you are offered re-routing, then a 50% discount will apply to that compensation if conditions fail to be met.
Some may argue that the airline has a defence of 'extraordinary circumstances'; I disagree. This 'mess' is not connected to the technical operation of the aircraft and even if there was an attempt to try and argue that it was the fault of the Irish Regulator(s), I do not think that would stand because the airline also knew of their Regulatory obligations and no doubt how the 27 other Member States applied the law!
It is interesting to see how the UK CAA has been galvanised into action by Consumer Complaints, and note that CAR finally made public comment on 29 September, the date of the now famous deadline! Comment from EU Commissioner Bulc, the gatekeeper of the Treaty & EU Law, is brevity itself! If the EU wants to demonstrate that Europe is for its citizens/consumers, then it needs to demonstrate its collective teeth on enforcement!
One final point relates to those many Consumers who have booked their own DIY holiday, in other words, they have booked a hotel or an apartment separately; can they claim for these additional or consequential expenses as a result of the cancellations and no doubt a failure in the overall holiday?
Article 12 of the regulations acknowledges passengers having the right to seek further compensation. Of course they can do so by claiming from the airline directly, but an airline may argue under these regulations, that they are not responsible for these 'remote' expenses. Consumers could potentially use the Montreal Convention which provides a Right to seek damages for losses following a 'delay', but clear advices should be obtained before embarking on this course! We have also seen the Insurance Industry declare that they will not entertain Consumer claims, but I think that depends on the type of Travel Insurance you bought. Even if you do not enjoy that 'comprehensive' cover, I think there are two things you can do. Firstly, in the insurance contract you could make a complaint under the complaints process, that they have treated your claim unfairly; the other option is to use the legal expenses cover in the policy and get the insurance company to help represent your claim(s) accordingly.
These are never easy routes for any consumer to take, but they must equip themselves with all the facts, their rights and not be frightened to confront any company, enforcement body or indeed the European Commission itself; this is about consumer empowerment!