Are airlines treating passengers of disrupted flights fairly?

Courtesy Reuters

IF you were travelling on Singapore Airlines (SIA) out of London and your flight is delayed or cancelled, you may be compensated up to €600 according to European Union (EU) regulations. However, if it is an outbound flight from Singapore, what compensation a passenger may receive, if any, will depend on the policy of the airline.

This is because EU regulations do not apply to non-EU carriers arriving at an airport in member countries although it covers all departing flights of both EU and non-EU carriers.

The regulations have recently been extended to include connections even if these are operated outside the EU by non-EU airlines. The ruling states that “an operating air carrier that has performed the first flight cannot take refuge behind a claim that the performance of a subsequent flight operated by another air carrier was imperfect.” It is therefore obliged to offer passengers alternative transport for the disrupted flight, in addition to monetary compensation.

Over in Canada, the Air Passenger Protection Regulations introduced by the Canada Transportation Agency require airlines affected by flight disruptions to meet certain obligations which will apply to all flights to, from and within Canada, including connecting flights. Passengers whose flights are delayed or cancelled will be compensated up to C$1,000 depending on the size of the airline and length of the disruption. Non-compliance carries a fine of up to C$25,000.

Countries elsewhere do not generally legislate on mandatory fiduciary compensation of a stipulated amount for flight disruptions. In the United States, airlines are obliged to compensate passengers who are bumped off a flight due to an overbooking situation (as in the EU and Canada), but there are no federal regulations requiring them to do the same thing for passengers whose flights are delayed or cancelled.

Consumer rights groups have long been pushing for fairer treatment of travellers under these circumstances. Besides arranging meals and hotel accommodation in the event of a long delay, some airlines hand out in-flight gift vouchers, but most do not make any form of financial payment. In many cases the affected passengers get not much more than an apology while they wait to be put on the next available flight.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recognises the vulnerability of passengers and supports “due attention… (which) could include rerouting, refund, care and/or compensation”, but it stops short of spelling out specifics and making them industry standards. The International Air Transport Association is however concerned that airlines may be adversely affected, advocating “an appropriate balance between protection of consumers and industry competitiveness.”

Affected passengers therefore by and large can only rely on the goodwill of the airlines, whose policies differ across the industry. Many of them have come to realise that to take the matter further on their own – including bringing an airline to court – can be tedious, frustrating and, more often than not, futile. What they need is the support of an authority who can enforce compliance within a legal framework.

Yes, even with mandatory compensation in place in the EU and Canada, there have been complaints that the airlines are not forthcoming in meeting their obligations, citing extraordinary circumstances that do not render them liable or delaying payment indefinitely. Still, in the context of good governance, what the EU and Canada have introduced is a significant step forward in recognition of the uphill challenge passengers face in their battle with the airlines for fair compensation.

Some airport authorities fine airlines for flight delays or operating off-schedule because it disrupts and causes less-than-optimal resource allocation that can be costly to the airport’s operations. By the same argument, passengers of disrupted flights deserve to be fairly compensated. The disruption can be costly in terms of making alternative arrangements, staying in some place longer than planned, and losing opportunities as in failing to make a business deadline. Above all, it causes anguish and distress.

The amounts recommended by the EU and Canada are miniscule compared to the fines of up to US$27,500 per passenger imposed by the US Transportation Department for planes left on the tarmac for more than three hours (or four hours for international flights) without taking off. American Airlines and Southwest Airlines share the honour of holding the record fine of US$1.6 million, the former in 2016 and the latter in 2015.

Non-US airlines that have been penalised by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) include Japan Airlines which was fined US$300,000 for two incidents in 2018 in which passengers were made to wait more than four hours on the tarmac before they could deplane.

All these measures serve the common goal of encouraging airlines to ensure their flights operate as scheduled and hopefully too that they become more conscientious about how they treat their customers. However, the fines imposed by DOT do not directly benefit the passengers who are the very reason why an airline is in business.

An example of how an airline may take the EU regulations seriously is when British Airways, faced with the threat of strike action by its pilots recently, informed its customers as early as two weeks of cancellations of some flights to avoid paying compensation.

However, do not expect similar regulations to be introduced any time soon in other parts of the world. For one thing, consumer rights groups do not appear to be as aggressive, and many countries especially Asia are less prone to industrial action. Besides major Asian carriers known for good customer service are more responsive to feedback and complaints and may already be offering some form of compensation even if they are not as generous.

But as the number rises, there is a greater need to ensure that affected passengers are fairly treated. The powers that be can ensure that. According to aviation data and analytics experts at Cirium, about 3.9 million flights or 10,700 a day were delayed by over 30 minutes or cancelled worldwide in 2018. Take a typical day on 5 August 2019.there were 22,386 delays and 1,107 cancellations globally, of which 29 per cent of the combined total occurred in the United States, 26 per cent in Europe, and 34 per cent in Asia Pacific.

Until then, here’s a poser for SIA and the likes: Will they accord the same level of comnpensation to all passengers even if they are not bound by regulations, for no better reason than simply one in the name of fairness?