01/17/2011

When snow blocks flights, what are your rights?

On a morning radio program a listener who was blocked in Paris by snow asked about her rights. The answer was not entirely encouraging: snow in winter is both exceptional and normal!


It was last Friday morning, listening to the Swiss radio while eating my breakfast, that my usual auto-pilot mechanisms changed when I heard a lady asking about her rights when blocked at an airport by snow. I turned up the volume, stopped eating and started listening.

The lady said that on returning to Geneva from her holiday last December, presumably from far away, she had to transit via Paris. She was unlucky enough to land there just before the airport was blocked by a snowfall. She then contacted the airline concerned (probably Air France), who had no idea when there would be a flight to Geneva: they even said that when the snow problems were resolved, the short-distance flights would be the last to be re-scheduled. They suggested that if she had alternative ways to get to Geneva she should use them. They did not propose paying for any accomodation in a hotel.

In the light of this, she booked and paid herself for travel to Geneva by the TGV train. Once back, she asked what was the possibility of getting reimbursed for the train and/or the unused air ticket. The response, given by a representative of the Swiss regulation authority OFAC, was that the airline companies can refuse anything on the grounds that the snow event was exceptional. However, since her holiday was an all-included package with a travel agent (Kuoni) she should be able to get one or the other reimbursement from the agent.

If this had not been the case, then she thought that she could have got something via the ETI travel insurance offered by the Touring Club Suisse (TCS). However, in tne opinion of the OFAC representative, this would not be the case: the TCS consider that being blocked by snow in one leg of a journey is not covered by the insurance, as snow in December is considered as perfectly normal.

There was the suggestion that, when faced with this situation in Paris, she could have thought of calling her insurance (there might be a 24-hour available number) before deciding what action to take. However, my reaction to this is that when such situations occur, it is often the first people to look for alternatives who are able to reserve them: latecomers find everything booked.

I was slightly surprised that persons in transit were apparently no better treated than passengers with a one-off flight. I was, however, less surprised that the answer to whether an event is normal or exceptional appears to be the one which will cause the least expense:

airlines say exceptional, the TCS says normal.

 

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