I asked an airline for money after they cancelled my flight, and I got it. Picture: Lauren McMah
I asked an airline for money after they cancelled my flight, and I got it. Picture: Lauren McMah

Email to airline that got me $800

Genuine tragedies aside, this was the last thing I wanted to happen on this particular morning at Krakow airport.

Bleary-eyed and underslept after having spent my last night in Poland at a vodka bar - as is customary - I was nonetheless at the airport gate at 7am, ready for my 8am flight to Budapest. It was meant to be about a one-hour flight.

"Easy", I told myself, as I used my carry-on bag as a pillow and waited for the boarding call.

At 10 minutes to 8am, my mate kicked me awake to say we weren't boarding yet.

At 8am, an update on the screen: the flight was delayed by 30 minutes.

At 8.30am, another update, telling us to await more information.

By this stage I'd perked up slightly and was killing time in a gift shop - carefully avoiding the vodka aisle - when I got a text message from the airline, LOT Polish Airlines.

Well this is just great.
Well this is just great.

I ran back to the gate, where it was chaos. People were livid. No more LOT flights to Budapest today.

The flight was cancelled due to "operational issues" - a vague description for what is essentially the fault of the airline. That would be important information later.

We spent more than two hours queuing at the customer service desk in the hope something could be done for us. I spent those two hours googling things like "Train Krakow to Budapest" and "How expensive private car Krakow to Budapest" and "Best place to sleep Krakow airport". This was a bad morning to wake up dusty.

You better believe my Instagram followers were hearing all about this one. Picture: Lauren McMah
You better believe my Instagram followers were hearing all about this one. Picture: Lauren McMah

Lucky for us, LOT staff squeezed us on a flight to Warsaw, and then a connecting flight to Budapest, and gave us enough money in meal vouchers for a much-needed Macca's.

We arrived in Budapest eight hours later than we had planned. It obviously wasn't a crisis, but Hungary turned out to be a highlight of our European holiday and the lost day hurt.

In the midst of all this, as I kept friends updated on my chaotic morning on Instagram, a German mate who worked in the airline industry flicked me a message.

Don't worry, you'll get money for this, he said. And I did - here's how.

CLAIMING COMPO

The European Union has clear guidelines about when and why passengers are entitled to compensation for flight delays and cancellations - even down to the sum of money they should get - and those rules are the envy of the world.

It's spelled out in Article 7 of the European Union Regulation (EC) No. 261/2004. According to that tiny little article, my travelling companion and I were each entitled to compensation from LOT because we were flying within the EU at a distance of more than 1500km and had been delayed from our destination by more than three hours.

The EU doesn't mince words when it comes to compensation for delays and cancellations.
The EU doesn't mince words when it comes to compensation for delays and cancellations.

These rules apply to cancellations and delays within the airline's control. Bad weather, for example, is not within the airline's control. But the reason for our cancellation was.

There are some variables, such as the length of the flight and how long you had to wait for a new one, but at the very least, we were entitled to a minimum of €250 ($404) each.

Google "EU flight compensation" and you'll find plenty of online ligitators promising to handle all the tricky business of claiming compensation for you. They'll even represent you before the European ombudsman if it comes to that.

The catch is, these firms will keep anything from 25 to 40 per cent of your winnings, which seems pretty steep.

With the blind optimism of an all-but-condemned man representing himself at trial, I boldly decided to take on LOT myself.

I started with the most obvious of things: a message to LOT's customer service department.

A portion of the message I sent via the LOT Polish Airlines website.
A portion of the message I sent via the LOT Polish Airlines website.

Quoting the flight number, passenger names, dates and times, I simply and politely explained we were entitled to compensation under Article 7 of the European Union Regulation (EC) No. 261/2004 for the reasons I mentioned above.

I received an automatically generated reply with a case number and then radio silence. I expected that I'd have to start getting tough, to put up a fight. But a few weeks later, I got a reply from LOT.

"Kindly be informed that we have decided to grant you compensation in the amount of EUR 250," I was told. I was sent a link to an online form and spent five minutes filling out banking details. Within two weeks, the equivalent of €250 from LOT was sitting in my account.

(Even though I'd paid for both tickets, it turned out my mate had to fill out his own form to get his share of the compo sent to his own account. That was no problem.)

So there we had it - $800 for a holiday misadventure. I'd recommend anyone inconvenienced by a cancellation or delay in the EU to chase up their airline. But I'm less certain how you'd fare in Australia.

 

If an airline cancels or delays a flight for a reason within their control, it may be payday for you. Picture: iStock
If an airline cancels or delays a flight for a reason within their control, it may be payday for you. Picture: iStock

IT'S A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT STORY HERE

In Australia, passengers are protected by Australian consumer law and the various airlines' terms and conditions and flight delay policies. There is also some recourse to the Montreal Convention for damages.

But Australia's system isn't quite up to the high standard of the EU, Shine Lawyers travel law solicitor Sean Sweeney told news.com.au.

"The system in the European Union for claims relating to delays and cancelled flights is definitely easier for consumers to navigate and does a better job of holding airlines to account," he said.

"The European Union has introduced regulation that protects passengers departing EU, or flying with EU carriers, in the event that they are denied boarding, or have their flights delayed or cancelled. The regulation specifies that, depending upon the factual matrix of the claim, passengers may be entitled to compensation, meals, refreshments, accommodation and transport.

"Compensation will depend on the duration of the delay and the distance of the flight, but can be up to €600 ($A970). Unfortunately, Australia remains years behind."

Mr Sweeney said in his firm's experience, airlines were usually reasonably quick to pay claims in accordance with their policies and compensation claims rarely required lawyers to step in.

"We have seen some of these cases that are more complex and need to be litigated, however commencing proceedings should really be the last resort in this type of dispute," he said.

Mr Sweeney said passengers impacted by flight delays or cancellations should contact the airline directly as a first step, armed with relevant evidence, as soon as possible.

"It is recommended that you communicate in writing as often as possible and keep detailed notes of your conversations and communications with the airline," he said.

"In the event that you are unsatisfied with the airline's response to your claim, you can consult a lawyer on the matter or forward a complaint to the Airline Customer Advocate (ACA) or your state's consumer protection agency."



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