Who should pay when your flight is cancelled by strike action?

Many stranded holidaymakers faced eye-watering bills to get home after last month’s strike by French air traffic controllers which caused considerable disruption for families at a busy travel time.

Some of the travellers now face an uphill battle to try and get back their losses (which could exceed £1,000 in some cases) after Ryanair and easyJet had to cancel 450 flights because of the French air traffic controller action affecting flights in French airspace.

Holidaymakers were reportedly told by staff they could have to wait up to a week for a replacement flight, while others were told they only qualified for one night’s free accommodation – contrary to European law.

So what are the rules and fine print governing these sorts of situations which can flare up unexpectedly?

Officially, apparently, air traffic control strikes are listed under the “extraordinary circumstances” in the European regulation 261/2004.

If a plane is delayed due to a strike, an airline does not have to pay compensation in the same way as it would have to do if it had caused the delay or cancellation itself.

However, when a flight suffers a long delay or is cancelled due to some kind of “extraordinary circumstance” – such as during April’s strike – then passengers are entitled to a level of care and assistance.

The French air traffic controllers were striking about plans to raise their retirement age from 57 to 59 and unfortunately it was not the first time a strike happened during a particularly busy travel period.

At the end of the day, airlines unwittingly caught up in strikes should normally provide food and hotel accommodation until passengers can get home.

Kevin Clarke, aviation lawyer at Bott & Co, told The Guardian newspaper recently: “Whilst consumers who are caught up in the travel chaos caused by the air traffic control strikes may not able to claim monetary compensation, EU Regulation 261/2004 still offers a certain degree of protection. It is not there simply to punish airlines for late-running planes but exists to protect passengers.”

Travel insurance policies often pay a small amount for very long delays (usually over 12 hours), but rarely more than enough to pay for a meal or two.

However, some will cover for a “consequential loss”, such as a hotel booking that you have been unable to use due to the strike. As a guideline, we would recommend that passengers check the terms and conditions which apply to their policy as exact details are usually covered in the small print.

Even though strike action is still relatively rare when you look at the number of strike days in a 365-day calendar, if you happen to be flying abroad for a timeshare holiday later this year, make sure you know what your insurance policy covers.  It may be boring but it’s worth reading the fine print otherwise if something unexpected like industrial action happens – either where you are on holiday, or in a country that could affect your flight route, it’s well worth being prepared and knowing what your financial options are.

If something in the insurance policy is unclear, contact the insurer and ask them to clarify it – ideally in writing – so that everything is completely transparent.

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