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Your rights when a flight is cancelled

“We are really sorry to inform you that your easyJet flight EZY8088 from Athens to London on 3 Jul 2021 at 21:10 has been cancelled,” read the message from the airline.

As airlines desperately try to staunch their losses, millions of passengers will have received similar tidings. Even though British travellers are able to travel abroad once again, international journeys remain fraught with complication and expense.

Carriers will typically study the loads for flights three or four weeks ahead, assess the likely appetite for further bookings, consider the revenue from the corresponding leg of the flight and (often) conclude that they would lose a fortune by operating the trip. So a tranche of cancellations goes out.

For example, Virgin Atlantic has just pushed back the restart of a wide range of transatlantic flights to late August. Passengers booked to Orlando from Heathrow or Manchester, or on a number of other routes, are finding out just now that Virgin will not be flying them.

But back to my Athens cancellation. “Please see below the three options that are available to you,” I was told.

“1. You can switch online to another flight for free.” You could, I suppose, but unless you have in mind a specific departure for the same as, or more than, the original fare, I am not sure why you would.

“2. Choose a voucher for the full value of your ticket.” Early in the coronavirus pandemic this was the option I chose – because easyJet added a bonus of a fiver per flight. But without any incentive, only the most benevolent-feeling passenger would take this option, rather than…

“3. If the above options are not suitable and you would prefer a refund, you can request this yourself via Manage Bookings.”

To misquote an old American Express advertisement, cash says more about you than a voucher ever can. You can spend it on a flight on British Airways or Ryanair. Or buy a new hat – or (if it was an expensive ticket) a round of drinks at an airport bar.

Yet for many travellers, a full cash refund is far from ideal. They need to reach their destination on the day they originally booked. Typically the fare on alternative carriers will be significantly higher. Oh well, you might conclude, I’ll take the money back as the least bad of my options and rebook. At which point the bosses of the cancelling airline will breathe a sigh of relief.

While easyJet talked of “three options that are available to you”, in fact there are four. And the last could be crucial: because it obliges the airline to find, and pay for, a train, boat or (probably) plane to get you where you need to be.

While some may have no time for European Union legislation, much of it remains in force – including the bundle of airline passengers’ rights known as EU261.

I commend to you Article 8 in the legislation, which explains your rights when your flight is cancelled. A passenger is entitled to “re-routing, under comparable transport conditions, to their final destination”.

That can happen “at the earliest opportunity” or “at a later date at the passenger’s convenience, subject to availability of seats”.

In the case of my Athens-Gatwick flight, I could have chosen from Aegean, British Airways or Ryanair – choosing the option that was closest to my original timing. The first two land at Heathrow, the last at Stansted, but the lawmakers are on that case: the cancelling airline must pay additionally for “transferring the passenger from that alternative airport either to that for which the booking was made, or to another close-by destination agreed with the passenger”.

Another aspect of EU261 that I applaud is the requirement for airlines to spell out their obligation to passengers. I shall leave you to decide whether easyJet carries this out. A spokesperson told me: “We continue to clearly link directly to further information on customers’ entitlements.”

They pointed me to a link in the email to the “delays and cancellations” page. This spells out the same three options – but if you scroll to the foot of the page, you are indeed told: “If there are no easyJet flights available to get you to your destination within 24 hours, you have the option to transfer to another airline, take a train, bus or hire a car.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the fourth option. I am drawing this to the attention of the regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, in the hope that pressure might be brought to bear on all airlines to make their obligations absolutely clear.

Meanwhile, at least you know now.

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