(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed
are his own)
By Mitch Lipka
May 15 Last summer, Mark Wilson waited in a Rome
airline terminal for a connecting flight to London on his way
home to New York. And waited. And waited. By the time he arrived
in London four hours late, the final New York-bound flight had
Wilson was offered a room at an airport hotel, which he
declined. He was also due a $550 cash penalty by U.S. law but
says he never knew about the rule. The money sat unclaimed for
more than two months, until he used the service Refund.me to
"I travel constantly. I had no idea that law existed," says
Wilson, 36, an investment banker.
Indeed, the right of consumers to collect cash from airlines
for international as well as domestic flight delays is not well
known, says Christopher Elliott, author of "How to be the
World's Smartest Traveler" and ombudsman for National Geographic
Traveler. "The rules are obscure, and airlines intentionally
keep them that way."
Consumers can fill out the required forms themselves and
deal directly with the airlines. You can access the U.S. forms
through the Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer
Protection Division (here).
European fliers can find forms at individual airlines or
through the European Union (here).
But some prefer to skip the extra paperwork and hire someone
else to handle it, even though it will cost a hefty percentage
of what's recovered. Service providers include AirHelp (www.getairhelp.com/)
and Refund.me (refund.me).
Either way, fewer than 2 percent of eligible travelers try
to claim the cash, and less than 1 percent of travelers receive
money, says Nicolas Michaelsen, co-founder and chief marketing
officer of AirHelp.
RULES FOR PAYMENTS
Passengers whose flights from Europe are delayed by at least
three hours or canceled are eligible for up to about $825,
depending on the length of delay and distance of the flight. The
average payout is around $600, according to Michaelsen. Flights
to Europe and within Europe on an European Union-based carrier
are also subject to European Union law.
Domestic U.S. travelers may be eligible for even more money,
but under much narrower circumstances. An airline that denies a
booked passenger a seat (somebody who is bumped on an oversold
flight because there are not enough volunteers to give up seats)
and can't get to their destination within an hour of the
scheduled time can collect 200 percent of the one-way ticket
price, capped at $650.
A delay of two or more hours is worth 400 percent of the
price of the one-way ticket, up to $1,300. The average payout is
$643, AirHelp says.
In 2013, nearly 467,000 passengers were bumped from
overbooked U.S. flights, according to U.S. Department of
Transportation records. A routine airline practice can end your
eligibility for a cash payment: if an airline offers you a
voucher and you accept it.
"Then all bets are off," Elliott says.
Data shows that most people take the voucher when offered -
only about 57,000 U.S. domestic travelers last year were
involuntarily bumped. Airlines are supposed to hand those
consumers the rules that govern being bumped from a flight, and
payment is supposed to be immediate. But that's not always the
case, travel experts say.
However, United Airlines spokesman Charles Hobart
says passenger gate agents are told to immediately settle up
with travelers due a payment.
Delta Air Lines last year was fined $750,000 by the
Department of Transportation for not following the rules. The
airline has since invested in additional training and electronic
signature pads to document that passengers were properly
notified and compensated, spokesman Morgan Durrant says.
So far, AirHelp has processed about 25,000 claims and says a
majority of applicants received a payout, with AirHelp taking a
25 percent commission including tax. Refund.me has a two-tier
fee, starting at 15 percent commission plus tax for those who
return a signed power of attorney form within 28 days, and 25
percent plus tax for those who turn it in later.
A typical case works like this: Connie Lee, 31, of Oakland,
California, was delayed on a trip home from Germany. She filled
out an online AirHelp form once she got home, which took about
five minutes. A couple of weeks later, Lee ended up receiving
about $800 from her airline carrier, minus the company's 25
"It was a very good surprise," Lee says.
(Follow us @ReutersMoney or here
Editing by Beth Pinsker, Lauren Young and Andrew Hay)