My story is not unusual. I was heading home from the island of Mallorca last October. There was nothing brewing in the weather and, indeed, the waves of tourists that summer brings were long gone. I headed to the low-cost carrier I was taking back to Los Angeles, checked in, snaked through security, made it to the gate in plenty of time … and waited. And waited.
And waited. Some ten minutes before the flight was supposed to depart, the crowd stirred. No announcement, just clumps of individuals leaving their seats and heading elsewhere. I managed to find an information desk and a man next to me speaking English and Spanish who was also supposed to be on that flight so he could attend his father’s funeral. Through him I understood the flight had been cancelled. The information person offered a shrug but my new friend beckoned me to follow as we made a mad dash for the luggage carousel to collect our bags before sprinting back up to the ticket counter to be rerouted.
And rerouted we were … to another flight that would connect to Los Angeles but was leaving in ten minutes. My partner in plane tag got ticketed before I did. And he made the plane. I was not so lucky.
A gum-up at security and some scary and rude agents who insisted I unpack everything, including my watch, were the first sign that things were going wrong, very wrong. Halfway to the gate with three minutes to go I realized my watch was not no my wrist. As it was an iWatch that I was not up to replacing, off I ran back to the security gates, about a half-mile down the corridor. No watch. No trace of watch and no help from staff. Finally, I reached into a drawer when no one was looking and retrieved my watch with a steely stare back at the agent who had put it there. Now it was time to go back to the luggage carousel and back to ticketing and learn that the next flight out on my airline would be the next afternoon. And no, they would not check to see if another airline would help me.
And it did not end there. Now I had to choose how I would handle this – where would I stay the night without emptying my bank account; how would I get out of the country and on what airline. Getting stuck in Mallorca is a rich person’s problem. Getting stuck there as a budget traveler is something else.
Even the end of the story did not go well. I left the next day on Air Berlin, which had gone bankrupt and was about to close operations two days later. The plane was delayed and cancelled and another option was given. I found an airport staff person who offered to help me make the flight, whatever the flight became. Naturally, when the plane finally took off there was another catastrophe waiting at the next airport. I had little time between my flights and a new double security line to manage. Running shoes on, I made the connecting flight to L.A., but just barely and only days before the airline closed up shop.
When I got home, all I wanted to do was to forget about the past few days. In doing so, I added to a growing statistic of flyers that may well be owed compensation for their flight troubles.
Money in the Air
A recent survey from AirHelp shows that US travelers were owed more than $413 million in compensation from airlines last year due to flight delays and cancellations. Some 92 percent of US citizens do not know their air passenger rights; and globally air travelers are missing out on $6 billion a year in compensation resulting from flight delays, cancellations and denied boarding. The compensation is due them under European Union regulations and relates to flights where the airline is departing from or landing in the EU or is headquartered in the EU.
The survey, from AirHelp, contends airlines are not making passengers aware of their rights, as 75 percent of US air travelers feel uninformed by airlines. AirHelp, which aids travelers in gaining compensation from airlines, reveals that even though one in four US air passengers thought they were entitled to receive up to $700 in compensation, less than 25 percent of those who were on a disrupted flight filed a claim. The main reasons passengers did not file for compensation included: lack of awareness of rights, did not think they were eligible for compensation and did not know how to file a claim.
AirHelp was most recently at Phocuswright 2018, a Ted Talks meets Shark Tank conference that brings together the great minds in travel tech to present new applications, new integrations and new ways of making travel in the Digital Age go smoother for all the intersecting industries and the travelers themselves. The company was there to present new and faster capabilities in filing claims through its app and online. Flyers are given an involved list of questions to vet their eligibility and once eligible, AirHelp takes over.
“Every airline is different but there are rules and regulations that protect flyers and that is where our expertise comes in,” says Kasper Rasmussen, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for AirHelp. The Y Combinator-backed startup launched in 2013. It does not charge the flyer. Rather it makes its fee – starting at €63 or around 25 percent of the lowest claim option – from successfully settled claims.
“The problem with airline compensation is that airlines are often reluctant to pay out compensation so you will likely get rejected. But this is what we do and we are tech savvy and global with a lot of muscle,” says Rasmussen, who adds AirHelp has already helped more than seven million passengers whose flights did not go according to plan. To scale with the growing demand, the company introduced AI into its processes, taking an ever-burgeoning dataset of information from claim agents. Correct information, eligibility of confirmed information and then legal codes that change per jurisdiction have given airlines the edge until now in a world that required human man-hours to process a claim. AirHelp now does this with accuracy and speed through machine learning programs and technology that can follow each claim.
From Minutes to Milliseconds
“What takes humans 20 minutes takes our bots 23 milliseconds per claim and creates fewer repetitive tasks for staff.” As an unmentioned aside, the process, at its best, eliminates the need for lawyers. Hiring an attorney for even a $1000 claim, is rarely a cost- or time-effective venture.Most of these claims are filed for flights in Europe where regulations are strong. But they do apply to Americans flying overseas on airlines that are subject to these laws.
U.S. regulations differ significantly from EU regulations. For example, while passengers on EU flights are eligible to claim compensation under European law EC 261 for lengthy delays, cancellations or boarding denials due to overbookings, the U.S. does not have equivalent laws for protecting consumers from flight disruptions. The European laws, however, apply to U.S. airlines flying from the EU, says Rasmussen.
According to EU regulation EC 261, for U.S. passengers on flights on European airlines flying to the EU, and passengers on any flight departing from an EU airport, airlines must provide passengers affected by lengthy delays of more than three hours, or flight cancellations, or boarding denials due to overbookings with compensation of up to $700, in addition to meals and drinks for all delays of more than two hours. Also, if necessary, due to a flight delay or cancellation, airlines are obligated to provide passengers with a hotel room and the transportation there and back to the airport.
U.S. passengers can only claim compensation from airlines under U.S. national law for the following situations:
Denial of Boarding: If a passenger’s flight is overbooked and that passenger is removed from the flight, that passenger could claim up to $700 for domestic delays of less than 2 hours (but more than 1 hour) and $1,350 for international flight delays longer than 4 hours. Of course, those laws do not apply if a passenger voluntarily consents to get rebooked following compensation rewards offered at the gate.
Baggage Damage or Loss: If the airline damages or misplaces a passenger’s checked baggage, that passenger may be eligible to claim compensation of up to $3,500 under U.S. law. Passengers will have to show receipts of lost or damaged items when filing a claim, however.
Surveys by AirHelp indicate that almost half of US air passengers feel mistreated by airlines. Easily a tenth of all travelers polled who experienced flight disruptions reported being stranded at the airport when their flights were delayed, and more than one in every 10 passengers reported having missed a relationship milestone or special event due to a flight disruption.
“My flight was delayed then cancelled and I wasn’t told why. They rebooked on a different flight that left 1 day later. I was not offered any assistance for the extra time I had to stay in Switzerland. I had nearly a full 24 hours to stay, and had to take a tram for $30, a cab the next morning back to the airport for $120,” reported one air passenger. “They didn’t offer me a hotel voucher or any food either. When I asked them where I was going to stay that night or what I should do, they told me ‘that’s not my problem.’ I’m 15 years old and was travelling alone.”
AirHelp found that less than 65 percent of passengers feel airlines are trustworthy, with more than four out of every ten passengers saying that they have felt the airlines were dishonest with them about the cause of flight delays or cancellations.
“For years, there has been an oversupply of airlines flying along the same routes, which leads to price wars, especially on holiday routes. Therefore, airlines reduce customer service offerings in order to maximize profits, frequently leading to the mistreatment of air passengers. As a result, passengers are sometimes faced with rude staff, and are experiencing extreme delays and disruptions that the airlines can avoid or eliminate,” says Henrik Zillmer, CEO of AirHelp. “Our survey results show that almost half of all air passengers in the United States feel that they are being treated badly by the airlines. The airlines have a duty to act in a customer-oriented manner in order to regain the trust of their passengers.”
In 2017, more than 2,200 departing flights to the EU were disrupted at the 10 largest U.S. airports. Which U.S. airport had the most flight delays and cancellations? Top spot for disruptions was Newark Liberty International Airport. The least number of reported incidents occurred at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
|Airport||All flights||Delayed flights*||Canceled flights||Disrupted flights** (in %)||Total EC 261
|George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)||215,000||33,000||6,000||18.23%||100|
|Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)||428,000||72,000||6,200||18.35%||100|
|Denver International Airport (DEN)||275,000||51,000||1,800||19.69%||30|
|Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)||311,000||62,000||3,800||21.59%||60|
|Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT)||259,000||51,000||4,200||21.60%||30|
|O’Hare International Airport (ORD)||418,000||85,000||6,300||22.20%||270|
|Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)||319,000||72,000||2,700||24.37%||180|
|San Francisco International Airport (SFO)||214,000||54,000||3,400||27.22%||90|
|John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)||215,000||53,000||4,900||27.76%||1,020|
|Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)||205,000||54,000||6,600||29.71%||350|
Table 1: Flight delays and cancellations at the United States’ biggest airports
*delays of min. 15 minutes
** total of delayed and canceled flights