Frequent flyer: what to do when there's an airline strike

An increasing number of airlines are striking at the moment — but what does this mean for travellers? Friday, 6 December 2019

By David Whitley
Photographs By Getty Images

Are we seeing more airline strikes than usual?

When pilots at the now-defunct Thomas Cook Airlines walked out in 2017, it was the first strike involving pilots at a British airline since 1974. Since then, they’ve all been at it, with the two-day British Airways strike in September being the most disruptive.

It’s not exactly an uncommon thing elsewhere, though — in France and Italy it’s practically a national sport. And the increasingly multinational nature of airlines means strikes in one country can affect flights elsewhere. When some 50,000 passengers had flights cancelled with Ryanair in July 2018, for example, it was due to strikes in Belgium, Spain and Portugal.

Why are they striking now?

It’s partly a case of muscle-flexing. After the 2008 financial crisis, many airlines were in a tough position, and cutting costs was seen as the most straightforward way to tackle it. This included a tight clampdown on wage rises and, often, putting new staff on less generous contracts.

Now, though, airlines are quietly raking in the profits — and staff have had enough of the squeeze. The strikers at British Airways also cite declining service standards.

Why can’t they just get other pilots in?

While being a strikebreaker in any industry is a touchy subject, there are other issues with getting replacement airline staff. Much of the training is airline-specific and, for pilots in particular, the training is done on a plane-by-plane basis. This is part of the reason strikers have considerable leverage.

And that’s before you get into the logistics of getting everyone in position around the route map, with the legally mandated amount of rest time. For the airlines, it’s often less of a headache to just cancel flights when they don’t know how many pilots will turn up for work, keeping as many planes at base as possible.

I see. What are my rights?

If flying from an EU airport or on an EU-based airline, you’re entitled to either a full refund or an alternative flight if the trip is cancelled less than 14 days before departure. You also get meals, hotel rooms and transfers if it results in a long delay.

A 2018 European Court of Justice ruling put a spanner in the usual airline practice of claiming strikes represented ‘extraordinary circumstances’, which is the traditional get-out from offering compensation for delayed and cancelled flights. Strikes by the airline’s own staff were ruled, quite reasonably, to be under the airline’s control. So this means you can claim up to €600 (£522) compensation, too.

Can my trip be ruined by a strike?

If it’s within a 14-day period, it’s more likely to be disrupted than ruined — perhaps with different departure times and route detours. A problem is most likely to arise as a result of the airlines’ favoured new trick — simply cancelling flights before the 14-day deadline kicks in. If this happens, you still get the refund or alternative flight, but good luck taking the money and finding your own alternative arrangements for the same price. The bargain rates you originally booked at are highly unlikely to be available.

Okay. How much would I be entitled to?

The EU-mandated compensation for cancelled flights are based on the distance and timings of the replacement flights, plus how far in advance it’s cancelled. The Civil Aviation Authority website has further advice and information. caa.co.uk

Published in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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