Q: Our recent Aer Lingus flight from Orlando to Dublin was canceled five hours before departure for no concrete reason. My husband and I are wondering if we have a claim under EU Regulation 261/2004. Aer Lingus says we do not because of "local laws," and refunded $142 for our hotel room. We are not cashing this check, as we do not want to settle.
We've read the regulation, and it seems that we may be eligible based on disruption to our plans, anxiety and inconvenience incurred, since we were ticketed on an EU airline going to an EU country. What do you think?
— Jean McShane, Jupiter, Fla.
A: Here we go again. EU 261 — the rule airlines love to hate — is a vague rule, and I've seen travel "experts" fight each other over it. In case you're just tuning in, EU 261 provides generous compensation for delayed airline passengers, encouraging airlines to stick to their published schedules.
Let's go straight to the text, which you can find on the EU government site: http://eur-lex.europa.eu. The regulation applies to passengers departing from an airport located in the territory of an EU member state and to "passengers departing from an airport located in a third country to an airport situated in the territory of a Member State to which the Treaty applies unless they received benefits or compensation and were given assistance in that third country, if the operating air carrier of the flight concerned is a Community carrier."
Wow, that's a lot of legalese, but let's see if we can unpack it. The law applies to flights from the United States to Europe, but only if the carrier is based in Europe (which Aer Lingus is) and only if you haven't received any compensation (which you have, but wisely decided not to accept).
If you're still confused about the rule, don't worry; I have a "frequently asked questions" section about EU 261 on my advocacy website (http://www.elliott.org/frequently-asked-questions-about-eu261/).
There's no "local" law I'm aware of that would apply to your situation. There's no federal, state, or local law that requires Aer Lingus to compensate you for your canceled flight. Yet even if there were, and you had cashed your check, I would argue that paying for your hotel room is not compensation under any law; it's just covering some of the expenses you incurred as a result of the overnight delay.
Aer Lingus shouldn't have told you that there were any laws preventing it from compensating you. At the same time, I've seen airlines argue — probably because of the vagueness of EU 261 — that the rules don't apply to them.
I would have pushed back when the airline let itself off the hook. You can do that by contacting Aer Lingus in writing through its website, and, if that doesn't work, forwarding your correspondence to someone higher up the chain. I list the names, numbers, and email addresses of key Aer Lingus executives on my consumer-advocacy site: http://www.elliott.org/company-contacts/aer-lingus/.
I contacted the airline on your behalf, and it agreed to pay you $1,400, the amount of compensation you were owed under European law.