The European Union’s EC 261/2004 legislation is rather unique because it sets out clearly defined requirements that airlines need to follow in case of delays and cancellation.
The law applies to all flights from the EU + Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland regardless of the airline, and community carriers flights also to EU/EEA. There has been a question of how EC 261/2004 is applied during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
EC 261/2004 requires airlines to compensate consumers for long delays and cancellations unless there is force majeure.
European courts have defined what constitutes force majeure, and those instances are minimal, such as the ash cloud over Europe due to volcanic activity in Iceland. Technical issues with the operating airplane are not.
Airlines are trying to use coronavirus (COVID-19) as an excuse for not obeying the law, and the European Union has clarified how EC 261/2004 should be applied during this pandemic:
Airlines are not required to provide compensation for cancellation and delays due to the pandemic as this is outside of their control (force majeure). They are, however, required to provide REFUNDS for the services they have canceled, and a duty to care applies.
EC 261/2004 doesn’t cover instances where the passenger cannot travel due to travel bans, but the ticketed flights operate as originally scheduled.
Duty to care applies even when the cancellation is outside of an airline’s control, such as the current pandemic.
The coronavirus doesn’t affect the requirement to reroute the passenger to their final destination at the earliest opportunity even when this would mean rebooking them on competing airlines. If the airline refuses to reroute and you need to continue your trip, you need to purchase the ticket and later seek reimbursement from the offending airline through the National Enforcement Body or the courts.
Here’s the list of enforcement bodies:
Understandably, airlines are not required to pay compensation for canceled and delayed flights that are due to the coronavirus pandemic.
They are required, however, to refund tickets if they don’t operate the flights as purchased. The guidance on the EU PDF is clear that airlines must provide refunds. Airlines can offer travel vouchers, but a payment refund is required if that is passenger’s preference.
Airlines are still required to rebook in case of flight cancellation or delays if this is passenger’s preference, and the Duty to Care applies in case of long delays (hotel accommodation, meals, and phone cards).
Airlines are bleeding money at the moment, but it doesn’t mean that they are not required to obey laws.