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Last updated: 17 May 2010

The UK has now seen three periods of flight disruption due to the eruptions of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland.  With the dust cloud affecting UK airports again through this weekend, it is more important than ever that passengers looking to fly in or out of the UK check with their airline prior to leaving for the airport to ensure they are up to date with travel plans. The disruption could take place intermittently for many weeks and months, however the authorities, airlines and tour operators are all working hard to ensure this trouble is minimised and as many people as possible can continue to travel.

If you've been affected by the volcano, we advise you on your rights
With passengers easily stranded all over the world when flights get grounded, air passengers have been facing a wide range of difficulties in both leaving and returning to the UK. With some having being proactively looked after by their airlines and tour operators, many are still having to dig deep to find a way back to the UK or to find new flights to get themselves away.  If you incur additional costs to get away or during your forced break from home what are your rights?

Can I claim anything from my airline?
All EU airlines operating in and out of the UK and all non EU airlines operating out of the UK, but NOT back to the UK from outside the EU must apply the snappily titled EU Regulation 261/2004. This ensures that customers who have faced a delay or a re-booking with the same airline due to the closure of airspace are looked after by the airline. For example, if you are due to fly American Airlines from the UK to New York you could claim, however if you are stuck in the USA waiting to fly on American back to the UK you cannot claim under these regulations.

You are entitled to the following from your airline;

Overnight accommodation
Three meals a day plus drinks
Transfers to and from your airport
Two phone calls, faxes or e-mails

Where you have been looked after and had these items arranged for you, you have no right to claim from your carrier, however those that were forced to sort out beds and food for themselves should make a claim as soon as possible. You must support all claims with full receipts and be able to demonstrate that your expenses were reasonable. When you send off your claim to your airline ensure you keep copies of everything that you send and retain all items such as credit card statements and bank statements for card transactions.
Full details of your rights under this regulation are found here.

How long will this refund take?
This kind of situation has never happened before where the travelling public will be making claims en masse. Airlines are not be geared up administratively to cope with the deluge of paperwork, so it is impossible to tell how long the process will take. Some airlines will be quicker than others; however customers must remain patient during the process. Refunds of cancelled flights will be quicker than claims for accommodation.

Is there a limit to how much I can claim?
No. The regulations do not set any financial limits. However airlines will be well within their rights to reject claims that are not reasonable. However, the regulations do not define what reasonable means, so passengers could be in for a rough ride to prove the validity of their claims.

What if the airline will not pay out?
If your claim is rejected by the airline or is not paid in full, you can seek advice from the Air Transport Users Council. They can approach your airline for you but have no rights of power to enforce your claim.

If you still feel you have a valid claim then your next course of action is the County Court, where you will need to take out an action against the airline if UK based. For any airline that is not UK based you will not be able to process a claim in the UK. Citizens Advice Bureau or a solicitor can advise on this process.

What if I took a refund from my airline and cancelled my reservations, making my own way home?
It is highly unlikely that you will be able to make a successful claim against your airline unless they were aware of your actions and had agreed to reimburse you the costs. In this case you should consider claiming on your travel insurance.

Can I claim compensation from the airline for the delay?
In a word, no. The compensation rights under the regulation are negated by the fact that the closure of air space is deemed an extraordinary circumstance and therefore compensation does not apply.

So can I make a claim on travel insurance for my costs?
Travel insurance policies have clauses such as Travel Delay, cancellation and Abandonment of your trip. These are the sections you need to check on your policy along with general inclusions and exclusions, to see if you can make a claim. If you are in any doubt, please check with your insurer before making a claim. We estimate that around three in every four policies will not be able to pay out as they do not offer cover to events as a result of the volcano, so many people will not be able to follow this route.

Those who can will be faced with a ceiling on how much they can claim and the need to demonstrate that their expenses were reasonable. Again, you must supply receipts for all expenditure and keep copies of all correspondence.

What if I am unhappy with my insurer's response?
You should follow up with your insurer and escalate to the highest level within the company, stating that it is your final approach to them. If you remain unhappy after this and your insurer is regulated in the UK, you can ask for assistance from the Financial Ombudsman Service, details of how to seek help are here.

I travelled with an ATOL protected tour operator - do I have any rights there?
The tour operators who operate from the UK are licensed by the CAA with an ATOL licence and often members of ABTA. They have a duty of care to passengers and as a result have been looking after customers in resorts across the world, providing accommodation and meals. Many have arranged unusual modes of transport home including the chartering of a brand new cruise liner that arrived back in the UK today, the Celebrity Eclipse.

If you have not received this level of care from your tour operator you should consider making a claim against them for out of pocket expenses covered under the EU regulations. They can then claim this back from the airline they booked you with.

I paid on my credit card for the additional expenses.  Do I have any rights here?
If you paid by American Express or Mastercard, your card provider may be able to claim for you. Speak to your card issuer and ask them for assistance.

Another alternative is to claim for compensation for your delay and costs under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act which makes the card company liable for your costs. However, there is no certainty that you will be successful and this approach should be your final resort after having explored all of the options above.

Summary
The UK travel industry has never seen anything like this before and it is inevitable that it will take a long time for claims to be resolved for all. Passengers will need to be patient; however they should also remain persistent.

The regulations were introduced back in 2004, however were never intended for this kind of scenario and are unclear in detail for how to handle the present situation. However, airlines are bound by them and customers should plough on with seeking redress, however hard it becomes.

At some stage there are likely to be test cases around the regulations which will help to define the rules. The EU is likely to come under pressure to review the regulations and governments or the EU will come under huge pressure to reimburse airlines the hundreds of millions of pounds it will cost to pay out to customers. Payouts that are not due to the airlines cancelling flights, but instead the governing bodies that closed air space.