It’s hard to imagine that a man who walks up to you at your gate at Logan Airport promising you more than $400 isn’t a scam artist.
I was about to board Norwegian Air Flight DY714 to Rome in August for some aimless post-grad backpacking.The flight had already been delayed, canceled, and rescheduled, and was finally about to leave, 16 hours behind schedule.
I waited by the gate fuming with contempt for the budget airline industry (just the week before, I had to deplane a Frontier Airlines flight three times), when the man approached, iPad in hand. He was working his way from aggrieved passenger to aggrieved passenger, explaining to each that under European Union flight compensation regulation, Norwegian Air owed each passenger 600 euros. (About $660.)
The law, passed in 2004, mandates airlines flying to or from the EU to compensate passengers on canceled and delayed flights. The amount owed depends on the length of both the flight and the delay, but for a flight like mine — a flight into the EU longer than 3,500 kilometers that landed more than four hours behind schedule — maxes out the compensation at 600 euros. Within-Europe flights only delayed two hours receive 200 euros.
However, if the airlines can prove the delay was outside their sphere of control, and instead the fault of extreme weather, for example, the law doesn’t apply. Natural disasters and unpreventable mechanical delays, like a bird damaging an engine, fall into this category, leaving stranded passengers out of luck.
The man at Logan, I learned, was a “brand ambassador” for a company called AirNSquare, a startup in New York that files claims on behalf of qualifying passengers, taking the airlines to court if necessary. To get in the terminal, the company buys a ticket for flights they see have been canceled, contracting people like Patrick to recruit passengers at the gate.
If they win, they take 30 percent of the compensation, leaving passengers with 420 euros out of the 600, or about $460 right now. Unlike other airline refunds, they pay out not in coupons and hotel vouchers but in cash, delivered directly to your bank account.
Of course, any passenger can file these claims on their own, but AirNSquare CEO Peder Wessel says that’s not a realistic option. “More often than not, the airlines will come up with a reason why it’s not their fault,” Wessel said, “You could send e-mails back and forth all you want, but you need to escalate.”
He also said that just because an airline admits responsibility to one passenger, it can still fight the other claims — forcing each claim to be litigated independently. “That is how the airlines handle it.” Wessel himself had the AirNSquare “light bulb moment” when a delayed Air France plane meant he missed a friend’s wedding.
Indeed, four weeks after my flight, AirNSquare notified me that Norwegian Air rejected the claim, citing “mandatory checks from aviation authorities on a specific type of Rolls-Royce engine.” When asked about my specific flight and the role of claims-agencies, a spokesperson for Norwegian Air said in an e-mail, “The only way to get a proper response from customer care is to file a claim through appropriate channels.” (AirNSquare and other companies are able to file these claims on behalf of customers by having passengers submit forms granting the power of attorney to the company.)
The e-mail from AirNSquare said they have previously won claims against Norwegian when they blame their engines, and will be appealing the decision.
I ran these claims by Charlie Leocha, chairman of Travelers United, an airline passenger consumer advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., who described companies like AirNSquare as “a phenomenally good service.” With each of these claims requiring litigation in various courts, depending on the destination of the flight, he says fighting the claims on your own can be next to impossible, and most travelers in the United States have never even heard of the law.
Beyond just ensuring delayed passengers get their compensation, Leocha said these claim agencies serve a bigger oversight role, forcing airlines to leave on time. “If enough people file a claim,” Leocha said, “it puts financial pressure to not delay or cancel the flight.” Especially for airlines who cancel flights that don’t have enough passengers to justify taking off, Leocha said, the decision to cancel a flight is a business one. By helping enforce the law, and raising the costs of delays to airlines, he hopes more airlines will follow their own schedules that they make themselves. “That shouldn’t be that hard,” Leocha said.
If that’s the case, of course, fewer passengers will qualify for the legislation, meaning companies like AirNSquare won’t have many customers. “This business will go out of business one day, hopefully,” said Wessel, the CEO. “Our ultimate goal is people need to know their rights.”
But in the meantime, budget airlines will continue to delay and cancel flights to keep their costs low, and the law hasn’t been seriously considered in the United States. But Leocha says regulation in the United States is necessary.
“Budget airlines are growing like mad,” he said. “We are the only first-world country without any regulations that are affecting the airlines.”
As a result, passengers not flying to the EU are left without rights for compensation, meaning more time wasted at airports and missed weddings and business meetings. But the 600 euros, even 460 euros if you need the use of AirNSquare, can go along way, especially when the budget airline ticket costs half that. In fact, my eventual compensation, should AirNSquare win on my behalf, should cover my flight home. If I’m lucky, maybe that flight will get canceled, too.