Simon Calder: Offside! Are the airlines bending EU travel rules?

The man who pays his way

Football's offside rule is easily understood by any reasonably intelligent woman or, for that matter, man. According to the sport's governing body, Fifa: "A player is in an offside position if he is nearer to his opponents' goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent." Whether, though, the player is committing an offence is a matter of interpretation by the lineswoman (or, for that matter, linesman). The grey area concerns whether the player is "interfering with play or interfering with an opponent or gaining an advantage by being in that position."

In contrast, the Europe-wide rules on passenger care when a flight is cancelled, for any reason at all, have no room for dispute. Passengers must be found some alternative way to reach their destination, eg on the next available flight. In the interim, "passengers shall be offered free-of-charge meals and refreshments in a reasonable relation to the waiting time; [and] hotel accommodation in cases where a stay of one or more nights becomes necessary". No ifs, no buts, nor any pleas of "extraordinary circumstances" allowed.

On 4 December, Roger Randle turned up at Palma airport for a flight home to East Midlands. But Spanish air-traffic controllers didn't turn up for work that evening. At least Mr Randle had the reassurance that he would receive board and lodging until the next Bmibaby flight to East Midlands, three days later.

There are many worse places to be stuck than Mallorca's gracious capital, whose lofty cathedral towers above a genial confusion of Moorish ruins and Spanish flourishes. Once the strandee has left behind the less-than-genial confusion at the island's airport, all she or he need do is download our latest "48 Hours in Palma", and bolt on a dramatic rail trip over the mountains to the town of Sóller – perhaps even more appealing than December in Mr Randle's home county, Derbyshire.

As is often the case with sudden, mass cancellations, the letter of the law was at odds with what actually happened. Bmibaby's ground representatives told some passengers to find their own accommodation and file a claim for reasonable expenses.

Mr Randle flew home on the rearranged flight, and sent his receipts to the airline's headquarters – a 17th-century castle in beautiful grounds close to East Midlands airport. But no wizard worked wonders on his £509 claim; instead he was told that the airline was "unable" to settle his bill and "any claim of this nature should therefore be directed to your own travel insurers". Mr Randle tried, but unsurprisingly, given the airline's liability, the insurer said "no". That was when he got in touch with me. In turn I contacted Bmibaby. The airline changed tack in the manner of a nippy winger:

"If Mr Randle has confirmation that his travel insurance company will not cover the additional costs, then Bmibaby will review the claim and make a reasonable contribution towards the costs in line with the EU regulations."

Is Mr Randle alone in being given this strange interpretation of the rules? Let me know:

To complain about a plane, try Spain

The case of an airline giving a passenger an account of the rules apparently at odds with reality prompted me to compile a Traveller's Guide to your rights when it all goes wrong: see pages 16-18 of this issue. In the course of my research, I asked the Air Transport Users Council where a passenger unhappy with an airline's response should go for help.

Contact the Spanish version of the Civil Aviation Authority, I was told. I ventured that it seemed odd that a UK passenger-rights body should refer a gentleman from Derbyshire with a complaint about a German-owned British airline to an office in Madrid. "This is the way that the European Commission want Regulation EC 261/2004 to be enforced," says James Fremantle of the Council. "We would prefer to be able to help all UK passengers but we have no choice. The body that passengers go to for help depends on where the disruption happened, and not the nationality of passenger or carrier."