For Americans watching the Thomas Cook meltdown that left hundreds of thousands of tourists stranded overseas, the biggest surprise may have been the efforts taken by the British government to bring its travelers home.
Within a day of the announcement by the British tour and airline operator that it was shutting down, Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority was booking commercial flights and dispatching a fleet of chartered airplanes to repatriate stranded vacationers, and reassuring those in Britain who had not yet left on their trips that the government would make sure their money was refunded.
Consumer-friendly laws in Britain and the European Union protect these and other people who purchase travel tour packages from being left in the lurch, in ways that many Americans and Canadians find unimaginable.
“I’m not aware of an instance where the government stepped in to charter aircraft to return stranded passengers,” said Mark Dombroff, an aviation lawyer in Washington, D.C., formerly with the Federal Aviation Administration. In the United States, no regulations exist, he said, that require the government to provide or guarantee transportation home if an airline fails.
There was a time when airline companies in the United States were subject to the heavy hand of government, which determined where they could fly and what prices they could charge. Since the deregulation act of 1978 however, a hands-off approach prevailed — at least as far as how airlines treated passengers.
In 2009, after several fully loaded airplanes sat on the ground for hours on end, neither taking off nor returning to the gate, the Department of Transportation issued new rules requiring airlines to compensate travelers for unusual flight delays, overbooked flights and to be more transparent about the full cost of an airline ticket.
That assumes the airline is still up and running. When it comes to cancellations because of insolvency, there is little information available. The D.O.T. website simply directs travelers to file a claim based on the terms and conditions printed on their ticket. Mr. Dombroff said that passengers should not have high expectations going that route.
“If the airline shuts down with no notice, the prospect of getting a refund directly from them may be problematic,” he said. Travelers will very likely have to pay for their flights home.
The Transportation department website does not address airlines that package associated travel products like hotels, car rentals and meals. European passengers can find this information online.
Here is where private travel insurance can help, said Kathryn Ward, an attorney with DLA Piper in London who specializes in aviation insurance and litigation.
“The number of people who travel with no travel insurance is staggering,” she said. “It’s not for the small things, but the big stuff.”
Insurance is not a fail safe and policies need to be carefully read, but costs like extending accommodations when flights have been canceled and of booking a return flight are usually covered by these plans. Booking a trip using a credit card can also help, allowing travelers to dispute the charges for services not delivered.
The situation is not much different in Canada, which enacted a new air traveler protection program two months ago to deal with flight delays, denied boarding and lost baggage issues. By the end of this year, Canadians will also be able to collect fees of up to $1,000 for flight disruptions, but again, the law does not address passengers holding tickets on airlines that no longer exist. Some provinces in Canada have created industry-funded compensation programs for travelers based on the location of the air or cruise line, but these programs are not nationwide.
When the Icelandic low-cost carrier, WOW Air, went out of business earlier this year, Canadian authorities wondered whether travelers would need to dip into a provincial repatriation fund to come home. Iceland picked up the tab.
In Europe, consumer rights are well established in many commercial transactions, including air travel, Ms. Ward said.
“The legislation has evolved to respond to the fact that passengers are more demanding and get more upset when things go wrong than they previously did,” she said. “Consumer protection is much stronger and in favor of the passenger here than it is in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.”
Packaged tours in Europe have been a popular way to travel for more than a century. Even so, over the years, hundreds of tour companies have gone out of business. This is, in part, what prompted the European Union 25 years ago to require its members to protect consumers against travel disruptions. How that is accomplished varies widely from country to country.
“We have one Europe and in that one Europe we have all kinds of countries and they do all kinds of things in different ways,” said Mirjam Dresmé, head of communications for Stichting Garantiefonds Reisgelden, a Dutch federation of travel agencies and tour operators.
In the Netherlands, Thomas Cook customers who had not yet started their trips will get their money refunded through a fund established by S.G.R. Those already at their vacation destinations will be returned home on charter flights or accommodated on the empty seats of other airlines, including other tour companies like the German-based TUI Fly. The S.G.R. fund covers the cost of this travel. Ninety-five percent of Dutch tour customers are protected by the fund, Ms. Dresmé said.
In Germany, tour companies purchase their own insurance policies to cover jilted travelers. Regardless of which government, industry or business ultimately foots the bill, when things go wrong for air travelers, the pricetag can be enormous.
In 2017, the repatriation of more than 150,000 travelers from vacation spots all over the world following the collapse of Monarch Airlines, cost 60 million pounds (nearly $75 million) according to Richard Taylor, press officer with Britain’s Aviation Authority. The Thomas Cook efforts, which will run until Oct. 6, are expected to exceed that, as the government charters airplanes and pays the bills for hotels, restaurants and car rentals. The money comes from a 2.50 pound charge per tour package paid into England’s Air Travel Trust Fund.
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