Will EC 261/2004 Protect Passengers Whose European Flights Have Been Cancelled as Part of the Coronavirus Crisis? A number of airlines have cancelled their flights between Europe and the U.S. following the U.S. banning flights from European Schengen countries from midnight on March 14, 2020, then the UK and Ireland at midnight on March 16. Many airlines, in an effort to preserve cash, are only offering passengers free changes or a voucher towards future travel. Hence, the European Commission sought to clarify passenger rights in the context of coronavirus cancellations, which is much needed.
Who is Eligible for EC 261/2004 Protection?
First, it’s important to note that while all airlines departing an EU country are subject to EC 261/2004, for flights to the EU, only airlines headquartered in the EU are eligible. Hence, if you’re on a United Airlines, American Airlines, or Delta flight from the U.S. to the EU you’re NOT covered on that outbound flight, but you are covered for these carriers’ flights when departing Europe.
If the Airline Cancels Your Flight, You Can Choose a Refund
The guidance, in 3.2 Right to Reimbursement or Re-Routing, notes that airlines are obliged to offer passengers a refund of the amount paid for the ticket for a flight that the airline cancels (no matter what the cause is).
For a roundtrip ticket, even if only the outbound is cancelled, the passenger is entitled to a refund of the entire ticket. If, however, the trip was booked as two separate tickets, one outbound ticket and one return ticket, and only the outbound flight was cancelled, the passenger is only of course entitled to a refund of that ticket.
No EC 261/2004 Compensation is Due, Since the Coronavirus Pandemic is an Extraordinary Circumstance
EC 261/2004 Provides fixed compensation amounts up to EUR 600 for a non-EU flight over 3500 km. in distance, although cancellations by the airline that are communicated to the passenger over 14 days in advance, or that are caused by an extraordinary circumstance, don't qualify.
The coronavirus pandemic is an extraordinary circumstance, so the European Commission has clarified that no EUR 250-600 compensation applies (as distinct from a refund of the price paid for the ticket, which airlines are responsible for, as explained above).
Duty of Care Still Applies for Passengers Who Choose Rerouting Instead of Refund
EC 261/2004 mandates that airlines have a duty of care to passengers who opt for rerouting instead of a full refund. That is, for a passenger who chooses a full refund of the ticket, the duty of care ends. But a passenger who chooses to wait for the next available flight must be provided with meals and refreshment in a reasonable relation to waiting time, hotel accommodation if necessary, and transport to the hotel. Practically speaking, however, the European flight cancellations that are due to the U.S. 30 day ban are in many cases resulting in airlines cancelling their entire schedule for that month, so refunds should be offered and no duty of care would apply.
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