Hello from the packed United lounge at San Francisco, where I’m waiting for my two hour delayed flight, LH459 back to Munich.  However by all accounts, I’ve got off very lightly.

For those that aren’t aware, snow has been falling over Europe, with operations at Heathrow and Amsterdam being affected worst of all.

British Airways has cancelled 176 flights out of 330 today, with reports saying that over 50,000 passengers are stranded at Heathrow.

There will be more cancellations to come tomorrow.

As I’m in San Francisco, British Airways have cancelled both of their services here today (10th December), with reports saying that passengers waited on the ground, on the aircraft for seven hours, before being told it wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Flights have been diverting to places like Belfast and Bournemouth, with passengers being bussed to their final destinations.

Rather annoyingly, the internet is full of accounts of multi-hour waits to get through to phone agents, coupled with the website breaking, or not allowing people to rebook themselves online.

So what to do when things go wrong?

  • Stay calm.  If you’re stranded with hundreds of other people, there’s no point getting angry with airline staff.  There’s probably nothing they can do.
  • If your flight is cancelled, don’t go to the airport.  If you’re at home, stay at home.
  • If you don’t need to travel, then cancel your trip.
  • Don’t wait for the airline to do stuff for you.  If you’re stranded somewhere, book a hotel yourself and then claim it back.
  • If you have to be somewhere urgently, then book the flight yourself and claim it back from the airline or travel insurance.
  • Keep your receipts.

If you’re travelling within Europe, and cancellations and delays are due to the weather, then you won’t be able to claim what is known as EU261/2004 compensation for delays and cancellations.

However, the airlines are obligated to look after you, to provide food, refreshements and accommodation, free of charge.  But if they’re swamped and you have the means, buy things yourself, and claim it back at a later date.

It is interesting seeing how the different airports and airlines deal with circumstances such as this.  By all accounts, British Airways and Heathrow have made the typical dogs breakfast of such a reasonably predictable weather event – after all, snow in December isn’t that unusual.

It would be interesting if someone did try to claim EU compensation against an airline that did suffer widespread disruption during an event such as this, using and argument to compare it against a carrier that did not have to make such sweeping cancellations.

Airlines make commercial choices about where they invest their resources around disruption handling; effective IT infrastructures to automatically rebook, or simply people to be available to manually rebook and de-ice aircraft.

If it could be shown in court, that it wasn’t an extraordinary circumstance as “carrier B” responded to the same event as “carrier A” with much more minimal impact, the I could see a small claims court deciding to award compensation under the EU regulation.

For those stranded, good luck.

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