LONG HAUL

You may be owed hundreds of dollars in compensation for flight delays—here’s how I got my money from American Airlines

Obsession
Getting There
Obsession
Getting There

Waiting is universally annoying but flight delays are particularly so: being stuck in an airport waiting for a flight you expected to leave feels like being held against your will. However, if you are flying out of Europe (with any airline, to anywhere in the world) you can be compensated for a delayed flight—and while money doesn’t make up for wasted time, it certainly helps.

Though around 900,000 passengers would be eligible every year for delay compensation on flights taking off from Europe, only 38% of passengers of them present a claim. After submitting one myself, it’s pretty clear why that’s the case. Between a lack of clear information and support to make sure airlines pay, it can be difficult for passengers to get the money they are owed.

But it’s not impossible.

This how I did it.

On Jan. 10, 2016, I arrived at Malpensa airport, near Milan, ready to fly to New York and with more than hours to spare, only to find that my American Airlines flight had been delayed by three hours—from 10 am to 1:30 pm. As I checked in, I was given a meal voucher for €10 (or was it €15?) and told to be at the departure gate at the new boarding time.

 Around 900,000 passengers are eligible every year for delay compensation on flights taking off from Europe but only 38% of passengers of them present a claim. 

I have a habit of grabbing informational pamphlets everywhere I go, and so I picked up one of the flyers titled “We apologize for the delay in your journey today” that were half hidden behind a sign on the check-in counter and put it between the pages of my notebook, where I found it on my flight.

I eventually landed in New York with a total delay of three hours and 25 minutes due to a technical problem.

Step one: I’m owed money!

The airline, American Airlines in this case, broke my rights as the passenger of a delayed flight leaving from the European Union, as established by a 2004 European Commission regulation. According to American Airlines, who is required by law to clearly inform its passengers of their rights in case of a delay or cancellation. It said, in case of a delay, passengers are entitled to:

  • €300 if the flight landed with a delay between three and four hours
  • €600 for delays over four hours

However, that is not quite what the regulation says. It states:

  1. Anyone (not just an EU resident) is entitled to compensation for delays above two hours, depending on the flight distance, from 1,500 km and more.
  2. Claims can be presented up until six years after the flight.
  3. It doesn’t matter how much the passenger paid for the ticket.
  4. Compensation ranges between €250 and €600 depending on a combination of the length of the flight and its distance.

I read the regulation and found out American Airlines owed me €600 ($675)! With this information in hand, I set to figure out how to get my delay money—something which is not quite as clear as the compensation requirements. I first asked Quartz’s resident aviation expert, David Yanofsky, who suggested I looked into one of the several companies that handle airline claims for a fee, but I wanted to do it on my own.

Step two: I’m gonna get my money

So, off I went, following a template I found online. On Jan 11, 2016, I sent an email with a claim to American Airlines. It read:

Dear American Airlines:

My flight AA199 on Jan.10, 2015 from Milan Malpensa to New York City, JFK had a scheduled departure time of 10:00am, but it left at 1:30pm.

The flight arrived at 4:55pm, 3 hours and 25 minutes late. The reason given was a maintenance issue, which, as recent court cases such as Huzar v Jet2.com have confirmed, is NOT considered an “extraordinary circumstance,” such that airlines are [not] liable for EC 261/2004 compensation.

As the scheduled flight length was over 3500 km, compensation in the amount of EUR 600 is due:

ANNALISA MERELLI ticket number: 125-8534842896

I look forward to receiving a check for $652 (U.S. equivalent of EUR 600). Please provide me the compensation form.

Thank you,

Annalisa Merelli

American Airlines received my email, on Jan. 13.

Ten days later, I received a reply citing the same regulation I had consulted. American Airlines offered me half of what I had asked for: $627 (then about €300) or a travel coupon for $500.

Our records indicate flight AA199 was delayed which resulted in arrival 3-4 hours later than planned. Therefore; you have the option of one of the following forms of compensation.

A. Monetary payment of $327.64USD equivalent to 300EUR – or –

B. Transportation voucher in the amount of $500.00USD.

In the email they sent me a form in order to formally ask for compensation of €300 and provide them with my bank details or address for a check.

I went back to read the regulation, which is a bit confusing as to what applies when, and relied on the EU website to give me accurate information. It reads: “if your flight […] arrives more than 3 hours late on arrival at the final destination stated on your ticket, you may be entitled to compensation of EUR 250 – 600, depending on the distance of the flight: […] Between EU airport and non-EU airport (all bold original) […] over 3,500 km – EUR 600.”

Check, check, and check.

Step three: Pay me what you owe me

I wrote back to American Airlines that I appreciated their offer but it was €300 short. I filled the form asking for €600, and sent it to them via email, regular mail, and fax—because companies love faxes. I left my phone number in case anything needed to be clarified.

 I wrote back to American Airlines that I appreciated their offer but it was €300 short. 

I sent everything back on Jan. 22 and American Airlines received it and replied on Feb. 9, saying “only 300EUR monetary compensation or a $500 eVoucher under the EU Regulation No. 261/2004 is due based on the length of time your flight was delayed.”

I asked that they point to me the passage in the regulation that said that. Nearly a month and a half later, on Mar. 23, American Airlines replied, this time quoting a specific passage of the regulation:

Our records indicate flight 199 was delayed which resulted in arrival 3-4 hours later than planned. Per article 7 section 2 B and C only 50% compensation is due.

This is what the article says: “When passengers are offered re-routing to their final destination on an alternative flight […], the operating air carrier may reduce the compensation provided for in paragraph 1 by 50 %.”

Because I was not put on an alternative flight, I pushed back, with a growing amount of frustration due to the growing amount of time it took to communicate via email.

Step four: You’re the worst

American Airlines is the worst. OK, maybe it’s not the worst, but it’s one of the worst airlines in the US, and it doesn’t rank particularly high worldwide. With $7.6 billion in profits, you’d expect American Airlines to pay for a phone line dedicated to customer service.

 With $7.6 billion in profits, you’d expect American Airlines to pay for a phone line dedicated to customer service. 

In the course of the months that followed my Mar. 23 email, I exchanged several emails with American Airlines. Our correspondence followed a simple template:

  1. American Airlines would say they could offer me 50% of the full compensation a condition that applies to re-routed flights.
  2. I would reply that my flight hadn’t been rerouted, and ask for an explanation.
  3. American Airlines would say they could offer me 50% of the full compensation, a condition that applies to re-routed flights.

I tried to find a phone number for customer service. Once, I was on the phone with four different people, managers of managers of managers who still wouldn’t give me a contact number to speak to customer service, so they could explain their reasoning. I even called the airline’s legal department. I filed the dispute to several courts in Italy, and to the body that is in charge of ensuring airlines respect the regulation, but wasn’t offered any substantial support. I tweeted @americanair every week:

Finally, I gave up.

Step five: Help

I should have listened to Yanofsky on Jan. 12—I eventually did on Aug. 3, and submitted my claim through AirHelp, one of the companies that submits claims on passengers’ behalf. I chose it somewhat arbitrarily, since they all seemed to apply pretty much the same fees. It took under 10 minutesthough if successful, they’d take a steep 25% of my compensation.

Three days later, my claim for €600 was sent to American Airlines and on Aug. 11 it was accepted. On Aug. 22, the money was in my bank, minus the €150 for the commission. Compared to the time I had spent to (not) get it done on my own, it suddenly didn’t seem like much.

“That unfortunately happens a lot,” Nicolas Michaelsen, the co-founder of AirHelp, says. “Often passengers are [pushed] around.” He says, the majority of passengers aren’t even aware that they are owed money at all—though that is changing: in the US, for instance, 29.8% more complaints were filed in 2015 than 2014.

Part of the problem is that there is not one body whose responsibility it is to go after the airline. “There are national enforcement bodies,” Christian Nielsen, who leads Air Help’s legal operations, says, “and they have the authority to make decisions that are not binding.” In Italy for instance, ENAC is the body technically responsible for enforcing the regulation, but after contacting them I found that it really only tracks complaints and couldn’t help me get my money.

 “There are no good enforcement options.” 

‘There are no good enforcement options,” he says, which is why companies like his are proliferating: “if the claim is really valid, we will take the airline to court.”

TL;DR

If you’re flight is delayed in the EU, you might be owed money but take it from me, it’s worth hiring someone to help you get it.

I found there is a precedent for reducing the compensation by 50% if flights are between three and four hours late, following a decision that was made in a European court combining two articles of the regulation. American Airlines was right—had they simply explained this regulation to me, I would not have contacted AirHelp, nor gotten twice the money out of them.

I contacted American Airlines to ask why they were so quick to reply to AirHelp’s claim and so slow to mine, as well as to understand why they paid the full amount if indeed they could’ve given me half. A spokesperson told me that American Airlines “follow[s] the same procedures regardless of how the claim is submitted,” and despite my request for details, didn’t articulate further.

I look at it this way: I spent hours figuring out the best way to get my delay compensation so you don’t have to, nor I, from now on.

In the future, I’ll try send the airline my claim—one time. (For the record, during the months I was chasing American Airlines I also happened to file a complaint with Air Berlin that was swimmingly resolved in a month, so it’s worth trying.)

If they offer me less than I think I am owed, I’ll get a professional service to take care of it.

 

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