Lessons From the Icelandic Volcano Eruption

Prepare to rely on your own wits, and wallet, if you're ever caught up in a travel meltdown.

The airlines use the phrase “irregular operations” to refer to travel disruptions caused by blizzards, power failures and thunderstorms. But what happened in the wake of the Icelandic volcano eruption was referred to by a different phrase: total chaos.

The unprecedented number of flight cancellations — more than 100,000 between April 15 and 21 — affected millions of travelers, and the fallout is expected to cost the airline industry $1.7 billion.

While such a widespread shutdown of airspace is rare, even run-of-the-mill storms can wreak havoc on travel plans. The main takeaway for travelers? Prepare to rely on your own wits — and wallet — if you’re ever caught up in a travel meltdown. Here are some lessons learned from the eruption disruptions, which are particularly relevant for anyone traveling abroad.
Stranded in Europe? Airlines May Have to Cover Costs

Most American travelers are not aware that the European Union’s passenger rights legislation covers any airline flying out of Europe, and any passenger on those flights, regardless of nationality. (It also covers European carriers flying to Europe.) Although carriers will not have to pay penalties for ash-related cancellations — because the problem was outside their control — the law still requires them to reimburse travelers stranded in Europe for hotel costs, meals and some phone calls.

That is the letter of the law, at least; the International Air Transport Association is appealing to the European Commission to waive the reimbursement rule for the recent volcano-related cancellations because of the costs it would impose on struggling airlines resulting from a catastrophe the law could not have anticipated. In other words, the situation is evolving, so don’t count on getting a check.

But if you think you qualify for reimbursement, you can contact your airline’s customer-service department about submitting your expenses, or you can hire a company called EUclaim, which takes a 27 percent cut of any compensation you get in exchange for handling the paperwork for you. Hendrik Noorderhaven, a Dutch software engineer who founded the company, said airlines often wear down customers by asking for proof to support a claim. “Most people just give up after two or three questions,” he said. “We don’t.”

Rebooking and Refunds: Airline Policies Vary
Most airlines offered customers whose flights were canceled because of the ash cloud a full refund, but policies on rebooking varied. Theresa Arnold and her boss were booked on a US Airways flight from Denver to London, via Philadelphia, on April 21 and were told they could not get a refund without a penalty, since the flight had not been canceled. (Although their business meetings had been, their flight ultimately took off on time.) Their only option was to rebook within two weeks of their scheduled flight, which was a tighter window than some carriers offered; Delta, for example, is allowing customers to delay their trips until June 10.

“I feel like we’re being forced to make this decision,” Ms. Arnold said, explaining they needed more time to reschedule their appointments.

The lesson? Some airlines are more generous than others.

Find Your Own Escape Route, Though It May Cost You
Whenever extensive cancellations happen, the biggest problem for passengers is that it is tough to get help from the airlines, which have reduced their staffs so drastically that customers can be on hold for hours before anyone picks up the phone. The problem is even worse for those stranded at an airport in a foreign country.

Bernard Schaer was on an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Frankfurt on April 15 that was diverted to Milan after the ash became a concern. He said that there was only one agent available to deal with several hundred passengers, but that American ultimately arranged for a bus to take everyone to a hotel and paid for their meals and rooms.

Rather than wait and see how the flight situation unfolded, Mr. Schaer managed to reserve a $200 seat on a train to Frankfurt the next day, an expense that may not be reimbursed, said Tim Smith, a spokesman for American; airlines normally require customers to get approval before taking alternate transportation.

Still, sometimes you’re better off taking matters into your own hands rather than waiting for your carrier to help you. Rental cars and seats on trains disappear quickly when airports shut down, and prices multiply by the minute as the extent of a travel mess becomes apparent.

Not All Airline Employees Know the Rules
According to Joel Smiler, a volunteer who handles the hot line for the passenger advocacy group Flyersrights.org, one of the biggest problem that callers reported was trouble rebooking their flights, especially if they wanted to fly somewhere else to avoid Europe.

That was an issue when Rory O’Rourke tried to rebook a trip from Denver to Croatia and fly to Hawaii instead. Mr. O’Rourke said that he found flights on United’s Web site for around $700, but that when he called to change his tickets he was told that the price to Hawaii would be $2,000. After researching United’s customer commitment — which guarantees equal prices online and over the phone — he finally got through to a United manager who matched the price for the Hawaii tickets he found on United.com.
“It boggles my mind that one person will tell you it cannot be done,” he said, “then you talk to another person two minutes later and they just rebook you.”

Where You Book Your Ticket Matters. A Lot.
When something goes wrong with a trip, travelers often discover that the fine print is different if they book a ticket through a third party instead of from an airline. Fees to change flights can be higher, refunds tougher to obtain and customer service more difficult to navigate because ticket sellers refer travelers to their airline for help and the airline sends them back to the vendor. This is even more of a risk with the cheap international tickets that can be so tempting online.
Worried about what would happen if her flight from Boston to Paris in May was affected by any further volcanic activity, Amy Fraser-Riley learned that the British Airways tickets she and her husband had bought through Airfare.com could not be changed, rerouted or refunded.

“I was always under the assumption that when you booked through a consolidator you actually still had your agreement with the carrier,” she said. “But I was sadly mistaken.”
On the other hand, having a travel agent in your corner can mean the difference between being stranded for days and finding a quicker way home. Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations in New York City, said that his agency booked stranded clients on Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 sailing from England to New York, helped others find train tickets or share bus rides, and advocated for refunds on behalf of customers getting stonewalled.

“Our job is to try to come up with solutions — good or bad, realistic or not — to help our clients,” Mr. Ezon said. “There is a sense of panic, and some people tell us, ‘I don’t want to be here, I don’t know what’s going to happen, just get me home.’ ”
 

Story originally published in The New York Times by Susan Stellin