The reasons behind this discrepancy are as various as the customers who, generally speaking, don’t know their rights or the airlines voluntarily omit to inform them. Now we see new structures appearing – or rather call them startups – ready to help passengers in distress.
The advocates are consumer-focused; they facilitate the claim process by filing documents online, representing you legally (if necessary), and getting your compensation from the at fault airline in exchange for fees. Some names: AirHelp, refund.me, or FlightRight. But before getting into the details of their businesses, let’s have a look at air passenger rights.
Legally Covered in Theory vs. Uncompensated in Practice
Rights exist. If you refer mainly to flights from or to an EU airport (plus Iceland, Norway, or Switzerland) with an EU airline, the legislation is extremely strict and carefully covers passenger rights. Briefly, the so-called EU Regulation 261/2004 stipulates rights in cases of denied boarding, downgrading, rerouting, cancellation, or long flight delays.
In these cases, the passenger can write directly to the airline using a handy form letter, explaining the facts and asking for compensation. The companies’ websites usually have forms available for claims. There is even an app, recently launched by the European Commission, Your Passenger Rights, in order to facilitate the claims process.
Compensation for flight delays under EU 261/2004
Length of Delay
Up to 1,500km
3 hours or more
3 hours or more
2 EU countries & ≥3 hours
More than 4 hours
Despite these rights, the airlines try to rely on the “extraordinary circumstances” stipulated by EU 261/2004, which exempt the airlines from paying compensation. The “extraordinary circumstances” sound very ambiguous, but they include situations such as weather conditions (i.e. the volcanic ash cloud in 2010), terrorism, crew strikes, or sabotage; basically situations which are outside the airlines’ control.
It is important to highlight that technical problems with an aircraft are not considered “extraordinary circumstances”. Also, in any of the situations mentioned above, the airline still must take care of passengers in case of delays by providing them a welfare package (duty to give care): accommodation, meals, refreshments, and transfer transport.
Once the claim form is duly filled out and sent to the airline, the customer waits for an answer. The airline either proceeds to offer compensation or will try to avoid paying. If rejected, passengers can take their cases to court. All this process may be delegated to specialized startups to deal with claims filed under air passenger rights laws.
Customer Focused Companies Are Stepping Forward
AirHelp, refund.me and FlightRight are a few names of recently launched companies designed to help travelers to claim compensation from their airlines. Basically, these companies advocate on behalf of the passengers in order to get compensation. Their services are not for free; if the claim is successful, the intermediary company will charge the customer from 15% to 25% of the total compensation. “There are more chances to get your money if you’re passing through us then if you’re sending your claim directly to the airline yourself”, explains Henrik Zillmer, the CEO of AirHelp.
Above all, these services expedite the claims process by making it simpler to file; in just a few minutes, you file your claim online and sign digitally. Considering the distance of the scheduled flight and the extent of the delay, cancellation, or overbooking you may had had, there is an automatic estimation of your compensation. The rest of the process is put into the hands of the company, which will advocate, follow up, and get your compensation. All these companies are providing quite similar services and follow the same business strategy for profitability: the company will take its fee from the compensation amount. If the claim process is unsuccessful, there is no fee.
As is the case with any service obtaining money for both companies and passengers, there is a need to raise travelers’ awareness of their rights and the ease of filing claims through the intermediary companies. They are very active on the social media channels where unsatisfied customers post feedback on their negative experiences with airlines. Henrik Zillmer from AirHelp states that “our main challenge is to increase the awareness that air passengers have of their rights. Most people don’t actually know that only 1% of the people entitled to get compensation actually get it, mostly because people don’t know that they are entitled”.
Companies helping customers to get compensation are flourishing and are in the role of guardians of justice. “The company (AirHelp) exists because it makes the process easy”, says Henrik Zillmer. They are in business after all, but at least the objective is noble. However, dealing directly with airlines for your messed-up flights should be (but is not) as simple as filing a claim through an intermediary company.
When an airline erroneously rejects a valid claim from a passenger, in no circumstance should the injured customer give up. Passenger rights are there to be respected, and airlines should take responsibility for this. Companies like AirHelp generally receive positive media coverage. Questions remain, as there is a need for these enterprises to ensure that the law is applied even by suing the airlines to pay compensation. This seems to be a broken process as a black-and-white written right is does not seem to guarantee compensation at the end of the claim process.
“We don’t support passengers’ rights in countries where there are no passengers’ rights”, adds Henrik Zillmer, referring to regions like Asia, Australia, or Africa where the company is not yet doing business. If for these regions “we need to wait a little bit more”, why not take advantage of the rights we already have respecting EU-related flights?
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