One case of many: Easyjet cancels the booked and paid for flight from Amsterdam to Berlin eight days before the planned trip. The approximately 60 euros for the ticket are in the passengers’ accounts a few days later. But the compensation of 250 euros, which the airline would have to pay in addition, is a long time coming.
Federal Consumer Protection Minister Steffi Lemke (Greens) is annoyed by such cases. “Due to the chaos at the airports and many canceled flights, vacations are currently starting with anger and frustration for many consumers,” the minister told the Tagesspiegel. Lufthansa is canceling over 3,000 flights in the summer months, Eurowings has hundreds of connections, Easyjet is canceling over 1,000 flights at BER alone. Passengers are caught off guard. Some only find out about their bad luck at the airport.
The legal situation is clear. Airlines are required to reimburse consumers for canceled flights within seven days. In addition, if the flight is canceled 14 days before departure or even less, customers are entitled to compensation. “I expect the airlines to meet their obligations directly,” emphasizes Lemke. “I assume that the Federal Aviation Authority will take a very close look at this.”
During the corona pandemic, the authorities imposed fines on a number of airlines because they had not paid out their customers for months. But consumers don’t get their money that way. The authority is not there to enforce claims of passengers. Others do that: The arbitration board for public transport (SÖP) supports passengers free of charge, but the process can take a few months if the airlines wall. Internet portals and lawyers are often faster, but charge for the support. The debt collection services charge a third or more of the reimbursement amount as a commission.
The Federal Ministry of Consumer Protection no longer wants to accept these conditions. They want airlines to automatically pay out refunds and compensation in the future. Support comes from the Greens. “It cannot be that consumers have to turn on a lawyer or a commission-based Internet portal to enforce their rights,” said the tourism policy spokesman for the Greens parliamentary group, Stefan Schmidt, the daily mirror. “Passengers must be compensated automatically.”
This idea is not entirely new. The coalition parties had already agreed on such a regulation in the coalition agreement. “Compensation and compensation payments should be automated for all modes of transport,” it says. In practice, this means that customers receive the money either automatically or with little effort.
But while the SPD is sticking to the plan, the FDP is rowing back. The Parliamentary State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Transport, Oliver Luksic, recently pleaded in the “Handelsblatt” for a voluntary solution. An obligation for the airlines through a national regulation would be “unhelpful” in view of the detailed regulations in the European passenger rights regulation, the Liberal told the newspaper. Consumer Minister Lemke sees it differently. She wants to work at EU level to improve passenger rights, which also includes the question of automated compensation. Tourism expert Schmidt appeals to the FDP to give in. “I expect that the procedure for the automated compensation payments will start this year,” emphasizes the Green politician. The FDP-led Federal Ministry of Justice does not want to comment at the moment.
The flight chaos is putting pressure on politicians. Consumer advocates expect the airlines to face enormous costs. “I expect a massive number of complaints, the flight cancellations are piling up,” said the traffic expert of the Federal Association of Consumer Centers (VZBV), Marion Jungbluth, the daily mirror. “It can get really expensive for the airlines.” The numbers from the corona pandemic could give an idea. The Lufthansa Group alone paid 3.9 billion euros to its passengers in 2020, when flying practically came to a standstill, compared to 1.5 billion euros last year.
The airlines rarely pay voluntarily. “We keep hearing that communication with the airlines is difficult or that they are delaying compensation,” says Jungbluth. She, too, would therefore like it to be easier for consumers to assert their claims: “You should be able to apply for compensation with three clicks, and the money should then flow into your account quickly.”
The chaos at the airports is already reflected in the Flightright internet portal. “The numbers go through the roof,” it says on request. The debt collection service provider receives several thousand inquiries every day. Compared to the pre-corona year 2019, Flightright has doubled. It is not far to a new edition of the chaos year 2018.
Sabine Cofalla, managing director of the SÖP arbitration board, is also expecting a wave of complaints. “I guess we’ll see a first peak in six to eight weeks,” she believes. But that’s definitely not the end of it. “The flight cancellations are expected to affect the entire summer vacation.” Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr even expects restrictions until winter.
Passengers can contact the SÖP to enforce their claims. The procedure is free of charge, but the SÖP only becomes active if the airline has rejected the claim or has not moved for two months. You can get your money faster if you turn on a lawyer or an internet portal. Market leader Flightright charges a commission of 14 to 28 percent plus VAT for a ticket refund, with compensation it is usually 20 to 30 percent plus VAT. If an external lawyer is involved, another 14 percent are added.
According to Flightright, whether and how quickly the airlines pay varies greatly. Easyjet and Ryanair are comparatively customer-friendly, and Eurowings also pays for the tickets relatively promptly. On the other hand, Iberia, Vueling, Turkish Airlines and British Airways would rather delay things.
Oskar de Felice, head of the Flightright legal department at Lufthansa, is particularly harsh in his criticism. “Justified compensation payments are fended off with all sorts of false arguments and you have to wait hours for a call on the hotlines,” reports de Felice. Lufthansa is a vehement refusal to pay, in the majority of cases you have to sue, according to Flightright. The group rejects this. There is currently no backlog of ticket refunds that are still open, a spokesman emphasized on request. Refunds are usually processed within the statutory time limit.
Consumer advocate Jungbluth wants passengers to no longer have to pay in advance. “The full fare should not be due at the time of booking, but only shortly before check-in.” Above all, however, she sees politics as having a duty to end the flight chaos. Jungbluth calls for a flight summit to bring everyone involved to one table.
And she has a few solution ideas up her sleeve: an automated security check like the one being tested at Cologne/Bonn Airport would reduce waiting times. In addition, the size and weight of hand luggage should be standardized for all airlines. And one piece of checked baggage should be included in the fare, she suggests. This would eliminate the “unworthy hand luggage scramble” at the security check.