Know your air travel rights

Keeping his travel receipts made life easier for Dr Tan Eng Kien after he found himself stranded in London in April 2010.

A volcanic ash cloud had enveloped Europe and his Singapore Airlines flight, originally scheduled for April 16, was rescheduled three times before he was finally able to fly on April 21.

"We had to extend our hotel stay and we were not sure if the airline was going to pay for the delay. The British media advised passengers to keep receipts. We therefore kept receipts of the accommodation, transport and meals," says Dr Tan, an obstetrician and gynaecologist.

And it was a good thing he did. Shortly after returning home, the airline reimbursed him for everything he had spent on food, hotels and transport.

When it comes to being stranded because of airline delays, air travellers flying to and from the United States or Europe - or on American or European carriers - have more clearly delineated rights, say air travel experts, and it pays to be aware of them.

Associate Professor Terence Fan, an aviation expert at the Singapore Management University, says that to his knowledge, only the United States and the European Union currently "provide passengers with some protection in the form of unreasonably long flight delays".

"The EU has an elaborate system calculating what airlines are responsible to pay passengers in case of flight delays or cancellations due to airlines' problems based on the length of delay and flight duration," he says.

He cites regulation 261/2004 that the European Parliament established in February 2004 on the rules governing compensations to air travel passengers in the event of cancelled or delayed flights. The regulations cover passengers departing from any airport in the European Union or arriving in the EU with any carrier from the EU, Iceland, Norway or Switzerland.

The regulation covers the refreshments, meals, communications, accommodation or refunds the passenger is entitled to, depending on the length of the delay and the distance of the flight.

Prof Fan adds: "The US does not have a comparable rule, except that it has a specific rule against holding passengers in the aeroplane on the tarmac for more than three hours barring exceptional circumstances and that airlines should accommodate passengers on the next available flight for delays or cancellation due to reasons other than weather."

For instance, American regulations require US carriers to provide adequate food and water for passengers delayed on the tarmac for two hours and to get all passengers off the plane if the delay extends to three hours.

American regulations also mean that if passengers are bumped from a flight involuntarily or their luggage is delayed, they are entitled to cash, not vouchers or future discounts.

Prof Fan himself managed to make use of these regulations when he was delayed for four hours on transit in London while flying an EU carrier.

While he did not immediately receive compensation when he was stuck, he did some research after the trip and saw that he was eligible for compensation.

"I wrote a letter to the airline after the trip. A few weeks later, an e-mail was sent to me asking me which account to credit the compensation to and I got paid €250," he says.

He adds that it is important for Singaporean travellers to be informed of the rights they have when travelling to the United States and EU countries.

Locally, no regulations exist across the board and air travellers' rights are left to individual airlines, says Mr Seah Seng Choon, executive director at the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case).

"This is a contractual issue and most of these rights are stated on the tickets of the airline. Alternatively, these rights are to be found on the websites of the airlines. Each airline offers its own remedy or compensation for delay or cancellation of flights," he says.

"Consumers should read the terms and conditions in their ticketing documents to find out their rights in the event of delay or cancellation. Notwithstanding the terms and conditions, consumers still reserve the right to seek recourse if they suffer a loss as a result of the delay or cancellation."

A spokesman for Singapore Airlines says that while it does have a set of "service recovery guidelines" for its customers, it was not able to share specifics for "operational reasons".

Travellers who went through Changi Airport during the volcanic ash cloud incident of 2010 would remember, however, that the lack of clearly delineated rights for air travellers in Singapore did not stop the airport and national airline from extending help.

Singapore Airlines gave out meal vouchers to stranded passengers, while the airport provided blankets, sleeping bags, phone cards and free use of its shower facilities to stranded passengers.

Prof Fan cautions, however, that even in regions of the world with regulations to cover air travellers' rights, these typically cover only airline-related delays - not delays caused by political events, for example.

"These would likely constitute extraordinary circumstances for which airlines would not be liable," he says.

"In such cases, passengers typically have to rely on their travel insurance policies for help."

Travel tips

Be informed about your rights on various carriers and from various destinations. "Given the same price and limited baggage requirement, I would certainly choose an airline from a EU-member country because I would know for sure I would be compensated for the airlines' own delays," says Singapore Management University's Associate Professor Terence Fan. "The EU limit was actually more stringent for airlines than many of the travel insurance policies."

Always read the fine print. "Some policies will only compensate for expenses incurred during specific times after certain delays or flight cancellations, while others will not," says Prof Fan. This is especially important when flying in regions where air travellers' rights are left to individual airlines, like in Singapore. Consumer watchdog Case also says that air travellers' rights here are a "contractual issue", and that they are detailed in each carrier's plane tickets.

Buy good travel insurance. No two travel insurance policies are alike, says Prof Fan. "Even the same companies can sell different policies. If the travellers already carry a separate life insurance policy, then they should opt for a travel insurance policy that pays less for their lives but more for the more likely travel-related annoyances such as flight delays, missed connections or cancellations," he says.

This article was first published on June 22, 2014.
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