Do you re­ally need to hire some­one to file your flight-de­lay claim?

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Trav­el­ers United. Email him at chris@el­liott.org.

If you’ve ex­pe­ri­enced flight de­lays while trav­el­ing in Europe, you know the drill: At some point, an air­line rep­re­sen­ta­tive pushes a brochure into your im­pa­tient hands that prom­ises you com­pen­sa­tion un­der Euro­pean law.

That’s what hap­pened to Björn Bie­neck af­ter he flew from Copen­hagen to Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port on Scan­di­na­vian Air­lines re­cently. The on­line travel agency he used, Trav­e­loc­ity, even sent him a re­minder that the air­line owed him money for the four-hour de­lay and of­fered him a way to col­lect “up to $414” through a com­pany called AirHelp. (Trav­e­loc­ity has a busi­ness re­la­tion­ship with AirHelp un­der which com­pen­sa­tion claims are re­ferred to AirHelp for me­di­a­tion.) Lit­tle did Bie­neck know that he’d stum­bled upon an emerg­ing in­dus­try that should not have to ex­ist — but does.

“Is AirHelp le­git­i­mate?” asked Bie­neck, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of a mar­ket­ing com­pany in Fred­er­icks­burg, Va.

Short an­swer: Yes, the com­pany is real, but you should think twice be­fore us­ing it. You might be able to file the claim your­self and keep more of your money.

EU 261, the law that al­lows trav­el­ers like Bie­neck to col­lect com­pen­sa­tion, was adopted in 2004. The reg­u­la­tion es­tab­lished com­mon rules on com­pen­sa­tion and as­sis­tance to pas­sen­gers in the event of de­nied board­ing, flight can­cel­la­tion or sig­nif­i­cant flight de­lays.

The fines, which range from 250 to 600 eu­ros ($261 to $626) per pas­sen­ger, are meant to dis­cour­age air­lines from keep­ing their pas­sen­gers wait­ing. They ap­ply to flights within Europe and cer­tain flights op­er­at­ing from Europe.

Air­lines are not fans of EU 261 — it’s a pricey rule. A re­cent es­ti­mate by the Lon­don of­fice of the law firm Nor­ton Rose Ful­bright es­ti­mated that air­lines pay “well in ex­cess” of $209 mil­lion per year in EU 261 claims in Bri­tain alone. The fee is so un­pop­u­lar that one large Euro­pean air­line, Ryanair, added a $2.60 fee to the cost of its tick­ets to cover ex­penses re­lated to EU 261 claims.

The reg­u­la­tion has a few loop­holes. For ex­am­ple, it con­tains no ex­plicit pro­vi­sion for a timely pay­ment of claims. So some air­lines have dragged their feet or cre­ated ad­min­is­tra­tive ob­sta­cles to pre­vent con­sumers from fil­ing suc­cess­ful claims, ac­cord­ing to travel ex­perts.

En­ter the pro­fes­sion­als, a col­lec­tion of small com­pa­nies that prom­ise to cut through the red tape and se­cure your re­fund quickly — for a price. These ser­vices charge a con­tin­gency fee, payable only when you col­lect. Be­cause the com­pa­nies are pri­vately held, it’s dif­fi­cult to ob­tain au­dited fi­nan­cial in­for­ma­tion from them. AirHelp claims to have pro­cessed more than $85 mil­lion in to­tal com­pen­sa­tion for in­con­ve­nienced pas­sen­gers since it was started in 2013, and helped more than 1.3 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide.

“The air­lines have no­to­ri­ously made it dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to claim the com­pen­sa­tion that they are en­ti­tled to,” says Hen­rik Zillmer, the co-founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of AirHelp. “It’s easy to get the up­per hand on peo­ple who don’t know the law or their rights.”

AirHelp uses a cus­tom database of global flight dis­rup­tions to val­i­date claims and then gen­er­ates and sub­mits claims elec­tron­i­cally to make the process as smooth and fast as pos­si­ble, Zillmer says. It charges a 25 per­cent com­mis­sion for air­line claims and au­to­mat­i­cally deducts the fee from the pay­ment its cus­tomers re­ceive, for­ward­ing the bal­ance di­rectly to them.

EU 261, the law that al­lows trav­el­ers like Bie­neck to col­lect com­pen­sa­tion,

While the process may be quicker, it is at times more con­vo­luted. Af­ter Bie­neck filed his claim, AirHelp sent him a no­tice that warned him it could be “two to three months” be­fore he had an an­swer and that Scan­di­na­vian might try to con­tact him di­rectly or low­ball him with an of­fer of a voucher in­stead of the cash re­quired by law.

“We kindly ask you to ig­nore any ap­proaches and for­ward all cor­re­spon­dence to us,” AirHelp said in the let­ter.

That kind of email makes pas­sen­gers like Bie­neck sus­pi­cious. He should be, says Dan Clarke. As the owner of the Bri­tish tour op­er­a­tor RealWorld Hol­i­days, he’s in­volved in hun­dreds of EU 261 claims a year, of­ten on be­half of large groups.

“In our ex­pe­ri­ence, there is ab­so­lutely no need at all to use a third-party com­pany to make your claim,” says. “The pro­ce­dure is sim­ple and straight­for­ward, and fol­low­ing a se­ries of court ac­tions, air­lines now have al­most no get-out clauses.”

None of this should be hap­pen­ing in the first place. The air­lines should have come up with a rea­son­able way to com­pen­sate their own pas­sen­gers with­out get­ting gov­ern­ments — or a group of en­trepreneurs — in­volved in a pri­vate trans­ac­tion be­tween a com­pany and its cus­tomers.

So how, ex­actly, do you file an EU 261 claim? It’s sim­ple. Bri­tish Air­ways, for ex­am­ple, has step-bystep in­struc­tions and an on­line claim form on its web­site. And while it’s true that claims nor­mally go off with­out a hitch, you can run into prob­lems. That’s where hav­ing a com­pany like AirHelp can help.

When Dirk Sch­len­zig flew from Ber­lin to Lon­don on Bri­tish Air­ways this sum­mer, an en­gine fail­ure caused a four-hour de­lay and cre­ated an op­por­tu­nity to file an EU 261 claim. Sch­len­zig, who works for a mar­ket­ing agency in Er­furt, Ger­many, ap­plied for the 250 euro ($259) com­pen­sa­tion to which he was en­ti­tled, but the air­line ig­nored him. So he turned to a com­pany called ClaimCom­pass, which re­trieved the money — mi­nus a 25 per­cent com­mis­sion — within about a month.

Alexan­der Su­min, the chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer at ClaimCom­pass, says com­pa­nies like his ap­peal to the pub­lic be­cause seek­ing com­pen­sa­tion is so of­ten char­ac­ter­ized by “in­fi­nite ad­min­is­tra­tive pro­ce­dures, long wait­ing times and poor cus­tomer ser­vice.” But the real prob­lem, he adds, is that al­most no one knows they de­serve it.

“Nearly 90 per­cent of pas­sen­gers are com­pletely un­aware of what ex­actly they are en­ti­tled to,” Su­min says. “Air­lines are not obliged to proac­tively in­form them of their rights be­cause of the way the law works; it is the claimant’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to ask for com­pen­sa­tion.”

A sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion ex­ists in the United States, which has fewer, but equally ob­scure, reg­u­la­tions re­gard­ing pas­sen­ger com­pen­sa­tion. That’s why Euro­pean com­pa­nies like ClaimCom­pass, AirHelp and oth­ers are eye­ing the vast Amer­i­can mar­ket for lost-lug­gage claims made un­der the Mon­treal Con­ven­tion or for over­sold flights un­der United States law.

Bie­neck’s case had a happy end­ing. Two weeks af­ter he sub­mit­ted a claim through AirHelp, Scan­di­na­vian ac­cepted it and agreed to pay him.

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