The last few years have been incredibly volatile for the travel industry. The pandemic, strikes, a lack of planes, refunds and trouble around the world have all had a major impact on our holiday plans.

This is reflected in the increasing prices of flights and other charges you’ll encounter when travelling abroad.

After last year’s endless parade of travel traumas, I’d hoped that this year we holidaymakers might just get a break. But no… strike action is back with a vengeance.

It’s been announced by the Unite union that there will be 31 days of strike action from June to August at the UK’s busiest airport – Heathrow. So far, we are looking at around 2,000 security staff walking out repeatedly over the next three months. This will affect thousands of travellers and it’s likely that some flights might be cancelled in advance.

Add to that the threat of strike action with other airport staff and baggage handling strikes a possibility too. Oh, and as many of you have told me this week, the impact of the French air traffic control strike has left many people grounded on the tarmac for hours as airlines reroute their flight plans – because French airspace is effectively closed on strike days.

Rubbish, isn’t it?!

So what are your rights if strikes ground your flight or the trip is cancelled? Here’s my guide.

Strike action

If your plane is delayed or cancelled, there are a raft of refund, compensation and support options enshrined in law if your airline is based in the UK/EU or travels from these countries.

However, when it comes to strike account, your automatic entitlement to compensation is dependent on who is going on strike and if it could be considered to be the ‘fault’ of the airline. This is where it gets complicated.

If your flight has been delayed or cancelled as a result of airline staff – like cabin crew or pilots – going on strike, then you are entitled to compensation by law. I’ve summarised the rules later on in this article.

However, airport and air traffic control strikes are not generally considered to be within the control of the airline, so you would not get compensation for delays, though if your flight is cancelled, the airline is still obliged to try to get you where you need to be. Sadly, these rules are likely to include the recently announced strike action of security staff – and any action from baggage handlers and the dreaded air traffic controllers abroad.

As always, a good travel insurance policy can help you out here. But once again, travel insurance policies vary. I’ve reviewed a few to see if there have been any noticeable changes to T&Cs but from what I can tell, some do cover strike action and some don’t.  Last year, Which? found that 40% of policies did not cover strikes. So check before you buy. You might even be able to get out of a contract you’re already in if the business didn’t make it clear that strikes were not covered.

Air traffic control

France is currently gripped by a wave of strikes linked to President Macron’s pension reforms. ‘What’s that got to do with me?’ you may be asking. Well the French Air Traffic Control works are taking part in a number of strikes. And that means if your plane is due to travel over French airspace, it will have to be rerouted.

As a consequence, countless people have reported delays of 1-2 hours while waiting on the tarmac. Airlines have to board their passengers in case a flight window opens, which has led to a bit of tension on board while everyone waits to take off. And don’t forget that your flight will also be longer if the new flight path avoids la France.

Given that airlines make money by keeping their short haul flights shuttling back and forth with very tight turnaround times, this has resulted in long delays and cancellations. Ryanair alone has announced that they had to cancel over 4,000 flights this year solely because of the French strikes (they are not happy). As this industrial action isn’t technically the fault of the airline, the usual compensation rules don’t apply. But again, if your flight is cancelled the firm should try to get you to your destination and cover things like (basic) food and drink or even a hotel depending on the delay.

So what if my flight is cancelled due to strike action?

Even though you don’t get statutory compensation for delays or cancellation, the airline must still try to get you to your destination. This can involve putting you on one of their own flights or failing that, on that of a competitor.

You can ask for a full refund, but be cautious of this option if you still want to travel abroad. Flights are more expensive if you buy on the day or within 48 hours, so you may find your refund doesn’t come through immediately or the cash doesn’t go very far.

It makes more sense to hold out for the airline to get you on the next available plane. Don’t assume they’ll get you the best option. Get online and see what’s available and ask the airline direct if they can get you on the next flight. We don’t really have a defined period after which you must be offered a flight with a competitor, but I’d argue that once we go over 24 to 48 hours, you are in ‘the zone’. Price up the options and put it to the airline direct. If you have to pay up front, make sure you keep your receipts and find out how to claim back your cash.

How does flight compensation work for delays and compensation usually?

If your flight has been delayed or cancelled, you are entitled to compensation from the airline, though what you get depends on how long the delay was and the distance you are flying.

The flight must be delayed by more than three hours and the delay is counted from the time the flight is meant to arrive – not when it takes off. ‘Arrival’ counts as the point at which the cabin crew open the doors… not when the plane touches down.

The flight must take off from the UK or European Union or be from an airline based in these areas. Connected flights count, even if you switch to a non-EU airline half way through your trip.

How much can you claim for?

The flight compensation rules have been brought in to UK law, so the only thing that’s really changed after Brexit is the amount you get has switched from Euros to Pounds. However, the compensation can be considerable. Compensation for delayed flights starts at around £210 for flights delayed for three hours or more traveling over 1,500km and goes up to £520 for flights delayed over four hours going long distance (over 3,500km).

If the flight is cancelled, you have a few options. You can either ask for a refund of the ticket or ask to rebooked on a replacement flight (either through your airline or a different one if no flights are available).

Then things get a little complicated! You are entitled to compensation if your flight was cancelled up to 14 days before departure and your replacement flight lands from two to four or more hours later that the original flight was scheduled. MoneySavingExpert have a full guide here.

If the flight is cancelled over 14 days before departure the airline should still try to find you an alternative flight.

What if I’m stuck waiting for a delayed or cancelled plane?

I fully appreciate that finding someone to help you at an airport can be a nightmare. However, if you do find a member of airline staff who can help, here’s what you can ask for;

Food and drink vouchers are most commonly given – but only after a certain amount of time has elapsed. Even if the airline isn’t at fault, they should give you vouchers. Don’t get too excited though, they are rather limited and not for a huge amount. You should get the cost of making calls in relation to the situation too.

If you’re delayed overnight the airline should cover the cost of your hotel and getting there. They usually chose the hotel so don’t get too excited. If you are forced to book your own don’t go five star – think reasonably priced and ask the airline if unsure.

Keep all bills and receipts for the things you are forced to pay for while dealing with the situation. Why not photo them too, just to be sure?

Featured in Mirror – Martyn James

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