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What rights do passengers have if flights are affected by the coronavirus crisis?

Empty departures boards at Malaga airport at the end of March.
Empty departures boards at Malaga airport at the end of March. / ÑITO SALAS
  • The Agencia de Seguridad Aérea answers the most frequent questions asked, following the numerous cancellations by airlines

There is no data about the number of claims yet, but travel agents say there are thousands. Many countries banned flights from Spain and numerous airlines have opted to ground their planes, even as far ahead as June, because so few people are travelling. This has left many families with the problem that they had bought tickets for flights which have been cancelled, and it raises several questions because the European Commission has interpreted Regulation 261/2004, which applies if a flight is cancelled or delayed, or you are denied boarding, in a different way for the Covid-19 situation. These are some of the most frequent questions asked by travellers, with answers from the Agencia de Seguridad Aérea (AESA).

What are my rights as an airline passenger?

If the company cancels a flight, it has to offer you three options: a refund; an alternative flight as soon as possible; or a flight on another date which is convenient to the passenger. This applies to return flights purchased as part of the same booking, so if the outward flight is cancelled and the passenger opts for a refund, that will also apply to the return flight. If they were booked separately, there will only be a refund for the flight which has been cancelled.

Do I have the right to food, accommodation and transfers if they cancel my flight?

Passengers have this right if their flight is cancelled. The airline has to provide them with enough food and drink for the time they have to wait, and accommodation and transport to the airport if they are forced to spend one or more nights waiting.

The airlines are also obliged to assist passengers who are disabled or have reduced mobility. However, this no longer applies if you choose a refund or a flight on an alternative date. In other words, this right only applies while you are waiting for a flight to your final destination.

Apart from a refund, do I have the right to compensation?

When a flight is cancelled due to extraordinary circumstances that the company could not avoid, it is not obliged to pay financial compensation. This is the current situation with the Covid-19 crisis, because these are considered extraordinary circumstances. In the same way, there is no financial compensation in the case of flights cancelled as a result of prohibitions or restrictions put in place by the authorities, those suspended because they are expected to be empty or are cancelled in order to protect the health of the crew. This consideration also applies to return flights. AESA warns that in addition to these cases, some other circumstances related with Covid-19 may also be considered extraordinary.

What should I do if the airline doesn't comply with my rights?

The first thing is to present the company with a claim. If it doesn't respond within a month, or the response is not satisfactory, you can claim free of charge to the Agencia Estatal de Seguridad Aérea (AESA) or take the matter to court if you consider that your rights have been contravened. AESA has also expanded its communications centre and you can ring them on 91 396 82 10 from Mondays to Fridays between 8.30am and 2.30pm.

How long do I have to present a claim if I can't contact the company?

AESA explains that as this is such an exceptional situation, the airlines' customer service departments are extremely busy, on the phone and via email. You don't have to claim at the same time the flight is cancelled. In Spain, these contracts are valid for five years, so you can claim at any time during that period. The Agencia Estatal de Seguridad Aérea has a claim form to present to the companies and a list of their customer service departments, and these can be found at: https://bit.ly/3dFaxM3. In addition to these tools, passengers also have the right to go to court to claim their rights at any time.

What should I do if they have cancelled the outward flight but not the return one?

If the flights were booked together and the outward flight is cancelled, the company has to offer a choice between: a refund for both flights (outward and return),an alternative outward flight as soon as possible, or an outward flight on another date which is convenient to the passenger. If it is the return flight that is cancelled, the airline only has to provide the three options above for that flight, as the European Commission explains in the Guide to Passengers' Rights which it has published for incidents related to Covid-19.

What if the airline only offers a voucher after cancelling the flight?

A passenger who is only offered a voucher has the right to request a cash refund from the airline. If they fail to provide this, you can claim to AESA free of charge, or take the airline to court. The voucher would only be valid if the company had offered the option of a cash refund, but the passenger had freely chosen a voucher. If the airline says the voucher has to be redeemed within one year, the passenger has to decide whether or not to accept it.

Does the airline have to assist you if it has cancelled your flight and you are out of the country?

If the company has cancelled the flight, it has to offer and provide the passenger with sufficient food and drink, and accommodation and transport between the accommodation and the airport if they have to stay for one or more nights until the alternative flight it has offered. This right only applies for passengers who have chosen the option of another flight as soon as possible, and while they are waiting for it. If you choose a refund or transport on a date convenient to the passenger, the airline is no longer obliged to provide food, drink and accommodation. However, bear in mind that if the passenger is in a country outside the EU and the airline with which they have a ticket is from a non-EU country, the rights referred to above do not apply. In that case, you should consult the regulations of the country in question.

How long can an airline take to give a refund if the passenger has requested one?

The airline has seven days after the passenger claims to refund the cost of the ticket, as indicated in Regulation (EC) 261/2004.

What should I do if the airline hasn't refunded the money in the time stipulated?

Claims for damages, or in this case interest for delayed payment, can be made directly to the law courts. If more than a month has passed since you made the claim and the airline hasn't responded, or the response has not been satisfactory, you can claim to the Agencia de Seguridad Aérea or take the matter to court.