The enormous cloud of volcanic ash has brought much of the world to a standstill. But some people have a better chance of claiming compensation than others.
The ombudsman of the Swiss travel industry says travellers who went through package tour operators were in a better position than those who tried to save money by booking online.
A five-day flight ban over Europe, almost 100,000 cancelled flights, millions of stranded passengers: the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano on April 14 has affected people and businesses all around the world.
“We’ve had noticeably more calls from travellers in the past five days,” Beat Dannenberger told swissinfo.ch. “They’d already done their research elsewhere, but wanted to double-check with us.”
For Dannenberger, the ash cloud is a typical Act of God, comparable with Switzerland being buried under a metre of snow.
“No one can do anything about something like this. And you can forget flying.”
Acts of God, but of a different kind, are flight cancellations following technical defects, strikes or terrorist attacks such as those on New York in September 2001.
People today are citizens of the world. That this requires more complex coverage than mere travel insurance has been made apparent by the five-day closure of Europe’s airspace.
Although a handful of planes took off again from Zurich on Tuesday, on Wednesday morning Swiss International Air Lines announced it had cancelled flights to Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Poland until at least 2pm.
The immediate task for Dannenberger and his team is to inform affected passengers of their legal rights as quickly as possible.
“If a customer can’t start their journey because their flight has been cancelled as a result of the ash cloud, they can claim reimbursement for the price of their ticket,” he said.
Travellers should be aware however that if they are reimbursed, they will have to absorb the difference between what they paid for the original ticket and the cost of rebooking.
Whoever wants to travel – i.e. opts to be rerouted – has a right to compensation. That includes drinks, meals and appropriate accommodation. But Dannenberger pointed out that claimants wouldn’t find themselves staying a week in a five-star hotel.
The European Union’s bill of passenger rights states that airlines must house and feed passengers “for one or more nights, as appropriate” – that is, until they have been rerouted. But the ash cloud situation is unusual in that delays rarely last more than one night.
The EU said most people were taking matters into their own hands and making alternative arrangements themselves.
Dannenberger told swissinfo.ch that the fact that Switzerland wasn’t a member of the EU wasn’t a problem because various bilateral agreements covered the situation and the EU’s bill of rights therefore applied to Swiss passengers.
In addition, stranded travellers can’t claim additional compensation for follow-up costs, such as arriving late for work.
Passengers also aren’t entitled to make further claims if they accept alternative forms of transport, such as when travel companies put on buses to take people to or from planes.
Travellers who have booked package tours, including for example flight, accommodation and hire car, should deal first of all with the agency.
“Package tour operators have come up with very considerate solutions; despite an Act of God they have been as fair as possible,” Dannenberger said.
But he adds that if you booked your trip online to save a few francs, “you’ve been unlucky”. Because everything is governed by separate contracts, the customer has to deal with each one separately – which doesn’t necessarily strengthen their position.
Renat Künzi, swissinfo.ch (Adapted from German by Thomas Stephens)
Zurich airport is Switzerland's largest international gateway and hub to Swiss International Air Lines.
On April 21 Zurich airport demanded financial support from the government to make up for losses estimated at around SFr2 million a day.
Geneva and Basel also operate regular international flights.
Bern and Lugano are mainly regional airports.
Small jagged pieces of rocks, minerals, and volcanic glass the size of sand and silt (less than 2 millimetres (1/12 inch) in diameter) erupted by a volcano are called volcanic ash.
Volcanic ash is not the product of combustion. It is hard, does not dissolve in water, is extremely abrasive and mildly corrosive, and conducts electricity when wet.
Volcanic ash is formed during explosive volcanic eruptions. Explosive eruptions occur when gases dissolved in molten rock (magma) expand and escape violently into the air, and also when water is heated by magma and abruptly flashes into steam.
Expanding gas shreds magma and blasts it into the air, where it solidifies into fragments of volcanic rock and glass.
Once in the air, wind can blow the the tiny ash particles tens to thousands of kilometres away from the volcano.