Missing a connection can turn a routine trip into a real slog.

There’s good news, though. Airlines that operate flights from/within Europe (or from anywhere on an EU carrier) are required by law to get you to your final destination within a specific timeframe. If they don’t, you’re entitled to a good amount of cash thanks to the EU’s passenger protection legislation called EU 261/2004. Outside of the EU; countries like Brazil, Canada, and the UK all have similar laws.

Unfortunately, there is nothing stopping an airline from denying a legit claim. They know you wont chase them down in courts, and there’s no automatic oversight.

Courtesy of the EU Commission
Courtesy of the EU Commission

Preface

Airlines are so focused on their bottom line that they will outright lie to passengers, denying totally valid compensation claims. They do this by giving affected passengers incorrect departure/arrival information, or worse, blaming Air Traffic Control, in an attempt to shift focus and avoid payout. (Non-EU-based airlines will straight up ignore EU261/2004 requests!)

“It was an air traffic control delay” is a convincing excuse, but generally not a valid one. Under the law, burden of proof is on the airline.

Air France played dirty with me recently—and now you get to read about it! Let this article serve as a tutorial on how to handle an airline dispute on your own. Take note of which proof to keep, which laws mean what, and how to word the emails.

The Incident

Original schedule (booking e-mail)

The first leg of my itinerary was flight AF1225, a quick shot from LIS to CDG on Air France.

Everything started normally, with a smooth check-in around 08:00 and a departure time of 09:40 posted on the departures screens. As long as everything went to schedule, I would arrive in Miami at 18:05 (EST).

My itinerary allowed for just an hour to disembark the first segment, go through immigration in Paris, then board the international segment. This connection was going to be tight—doable, but tight.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t even make it that far before things went south.

Right off the bat, the arrival plane (F-GTAY) from Paris (AF1224) was delayed into Lisbon by about ten minutes, arriving at the gate at 09:00. This gave Air France just 40 minutes to disembark all the passengers, clean, and off/load all the hold luggage.

Incoming aircraft F-GTAY (AF1224) on June 1st (FlightAware)

The gate agents made an announcement of a short delay due to a “late incoming aircraft,” and put a new departure time up of 09:56. Once the plane was ready, we were quickly boarded and things seemed to be back on track.

Then we waited.

And waited.

At one point, I checked FlightAware, which said the plane had already taken off. We hadn’t even left the gate.

(FlightAware)
Real-time information from June 1st around 10:15am

By the time the flight left the gate at 10:48, it was clear there was going to be no time to make the connection. This was confirmed by a flight attendant, who told me during the flight to proceed directly to the customer service booth once we arrived at CDG.

The flight landed at 13:55, and it wasn’t until about 14:20 that all passengers (including myself) were fully unloaded. It took about ten more minutes to get myself to the customer service booth.

(PlaneFlightTracker)(estimated arrival vs actual arrival)

Customer Service

The AF customer service agents at Charles de Gaulle were helpful enough. I was re-booked on AF686 to Atlanta, and then on DL1399 to Miami. My new ETA: 00:53(+1 day)—roughly 6 hours after my original scheduled landing time, triggering Article 6(1)(c) and Article 7(1)(c) of EU 261/2004.

While at the Air France, help desk I asked about my right to compensation, but they would not provide any information. This could be considered a violation of Article 251 (20) of the original treaty:

(20) Passengers should be fully informed of their rights in the event of denied boarding and of cancellation or long delay of flights, so that they can effectively exercise their rights.

https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX%3A32004R0261

“I don’t know anything about that law,” I was told. “You’ll have to call.” Instead, I was handed an €11 voucher for food (which buys nothing at CDG, by the way).

The Claim

Within the next 30 minutes, I had filed a claim through Air France’s online portal. This is a really simple online form that just requires photos of your boarding pass, flight details, bank information, and a short explanation. The entire process from submission to decision should take roughly a week.

For the record, the rest of my flights were also delayed, getting me into Miami at 02:15 (+1 day) and making the total delay about eight hours.

Within ten days I got a response from Air France: denied.

First Denial (for a flight from Israel?)

Blaming ATC and weather are common “get-out-of-jail-free cards” airlines use—mostly because it’s initially hard to prove wrong. Most people don’t think an airline would lie to them. I responded to the denial asking for clarification before I escalated.

Second Denial

Escalation

Rule of thumb: never trust a company that owes you money to fairly investigate themselves. Once I realized Air France was sticking to the script, I informed them that I will be escalating to the Portuguese Civil Aviation Authority (also known as ANAC).

In Europe, each country has a Civil Aviation Authority that is responsible for enforcing EU 261/2004. To escalate a claim, fill out a complaint form and send all the requested documents to the Civil Aviation Authority in the departure country — in my case Portugal. You may have to write the email in the local language, however many, like ANAC, have an English contact. It can take up to 30 days to receive a response.

Conclusion

Lucky for me, it took just five days for ANAC to come back with a response: OVERRULED!

Just to be clear: ANAC requested clarification from Air France, and instead of blaming weather or ATC, AF simply rolled over without challenge. Why? Because the burden of proof falls on the airline and they were presumably lying to me.

Instead of reopening my original claim, Air France opened a brand new claim. I was ultimately paid out $658.

Aftermath

As you can see, Airlines have no trouble hiding the truth from customers. The way to handle it is with confidence and persistance. If you are having trouble with an airline losing your luggage, or making your routine flight a nightmare of rerouting, feel free to reach out to us!

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