Crisis highlights lack of rights for air passengers

Travel Industry
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The Independent Online

From the main Swissair hub at Zurich airport, a highway leads north across the Rhine, through the Black Forest and into France. With luck and a series of fast lifts, a hitchhiker could make it back to one of the Channel ports in a day and persuade a driver with space in their car or truck to take them across to Britain free.

For anyone stranded following the shutdown at Zurich airport, thumbing home is the one inexpensive solution to the grounding of Swissair flights.

The aviation crisis has highlighted a loophole that consumer groups have long campaigned to have blocked: anyone who buys a scheduled flight ticket from an airline has precious few rights if it stops flying. Paying with cash or a debit card means you must join the long queue of creditors, with little hope of recovering more than a small fraction of the fare.

People who spend more than £100 and pay with a credit card are covered through the Consumer Credit Act, while discount agencies will provide scheduled airline failure insurance either free or for a nominal sum. But these schemes will do no more than refund the fare originally paid. As thousands stranded in Switzerland and beyond are discovering to their discomfort, one-way fares to Britain often cost a great deal more than return tickets from the UK.

When an airline fails, it is customary for other carriers to step in and offer stranded passengers seats at a fraction of the normal fare. But no airline is feeling charitable at present and some Swissair passengers may find themselves paying hundreds of pounds for the 90-minute flight home. Neither is there any hope of recovering the extra cost of accommodation and food while waiting for the journey home. Standard travel insurance policies typically compensate delays on the outbound journey only.

Passengers covered by an Air Travel Organiser's Licence find themselves in a far stronger position. The ATOL scheme applies to almost all charter flights and to scheduled flights that form part of package holidays. The Civil Aviation Authority, which administers the scheme, routinely repatriates travellers at no cost.

Rumours are rife within the travel industry about the next airline to go under in the wake of the terror attack on America. These scares can quickly turn into self-fulfilling prophecies: if travel agents are unwilling to book passengers on a particular airline because of fears about its financial health, the shortfall in earnings can precipitate bankruptcy.

The first evidence of a marketing offensive on the part of US airlines began to emerge yesterday. Normally, economy-class seats from the UK to the US are sold for as little as £200 return, cross-subsidised by business-class fares of £5,000 or more. This winter, the fall in traffic is afflicting all classes. To try to boost transatlantic business traffic over Christmas and New Year, Continental Airlines began selling through discount agents at less than half the official business-class fares. Other airlines are expected soon to follow suit. But if a US carrier were to fail, hitching home would not be an option.

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