You’re grounded: don’t lose the departure gate lottery

After we were denied boarding on a flight to Mumbai, we quickly realised the extent to which our rights as passengers were being trampled upon

It pays to be aware of your rights to ensure you’re not the unfortunate lottery loser at the departure gate. Photograph: Getty Images

It pays to be aware of your rights to ensure you’re not the unfortunate lottery loser at the departure gate. Photograph: Getty Images

Mon, Apr 14, 2014, 01:00

It’s a sad truism that you usually realise the extent of your consumer rights only when those rights have been trampled upon.

I am now something of an expert in air passengers’ rights, and here is the frustrating situation that led to this unwanted expertise. It was the first day of a month- long adventure, a journey around India that my girlfriend and I were somewhat casually describing as a “trip of a lifetime”. So it was with an understandable amount of giddy excitement that we commenced the journey at Hamburg airport.

We were to fly with Turkish Airlines to Mumbai via Istanbul – we had flown with them to Istanbul previously and were impressed. The flights were a good deal cheaper than most rivals’ but the airline’s burgeoning status as a major global carrier meant the good value didn’t set off any alarm bells.

When we approached the departure gate at Hamburg we were informed that we could not be accommodated on the Istanbul to Mumbai flight and that our bags had been taken off the aircraft due for departure from Hamburg. We were told we could possibly be accommodated on another flight leaving later that day but that we had to return to the Turkish Airlines desk in the check-in hall.

And it was there that the Kafkaesque fun really started. Airline staff immediately disabused us of any notion we would be getting a flight later that day. The Istanbul to Mumbai flight was heavily overbooked, which is entirely legal, they explained, and for some reason we had been selected to be denied boarding. “There are lots of other unfortunate people in the same situation,” he told us, as if this was some sort of consolation. The following morning was the earliest we would be going out, and he booked us on a Lufthansa flight via Frankfurt.

At this point I had a glimmer of a memory of reading something about air passengers’ rights and compensation in the event of delay or non-travel. I asked about our rights, about compensation, about transport and food expenses caused by the delay. “Send an email to this address,” said another Turkish Airlines staffer, scribbling a customer support email address on a Post-it note, “and you can claim compensation. And keep your receipts.”

Stand up for your rights
We protested politely about the unfairness of it all but slunk away, deflated and seemingly powerless. But it was only once we got back to my girlfriend’s flat did I get angry, as a quick Google search revealed the extent to which the Turkish Airlines staff had ignored our rights as passengers.

Since 2005, EU regulation EC 261/2004 has enforced the rights of passengers, and it’s pretty explicit about how airlines operating in the EU are supposed to behave when flights are overbooked or delayed.

First of all, passengers can’t just be randomly selected in a sort of reverse-lottery, with those chosen denied boarding, as happened to us. Instead, the regulations state that a carrier “shall first call for volunteers to surrender their reservations in exchange for benefits”. Furthermore, airlines are obliged to provide passengers affected by delay or denial of boarding with a written copy of the regulations. A carrier denying boarding is obliged to offer meals, refreshments, transport and accommodation to affected passengers, as necessary.

Above all, the carrier is supposed to offer a specific amount of compensation, determined by the distance to the final destination and the length of delay in getting there. In our case that meant €600 each.

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