Q: We were returning from Rome to Vancouver via Toronto last year when we were bumped from our flight by Alitalia. The airline rerouted us through London, where we ran into a great deal of difficulty, including a missed flight. Eventually, we caught a flight to Vancouver the next day.
Alitalia owes us 600 euros, according to the European consumer- protection rules. But the airline has provided an almost perfect case study of a business employing stonewalling techniques to avoid regulatory and legal obligations, and to wear down complainants in the process.
There have been several e-mails exchanged among us, our travel agent and Alitalia. The airline doesn’t respond to regulatory and legal-case information raised by us and our travel agent. We have filed a complaint with Canadian authorities but also would appreciate your assistance in dealing with Alitalia on this issue.
A: You’re right. European regulations — specifically, a law called EU 261 — require Alitalia to compensate you for the denied boarding and delay. Instead, it appears to be brushing you off.
It’s not difficult to see why. European airlines pay only a small percentage of the claims owed under EU 261. Most passengers don’t know of the rule, and it’s written vaguely enough that airline lawyers do an excellent job of convincing passengers that the airlines aren’t required to pay up.
Generally speaking, it also is true that airlines like to continue sending form rejection letters until you give up. That’s actually true for most businesses, not just air carriers. But airlines have perfected it, and no European airline seems to do it better than Alitalia.
When an airline won’t budge, your final step is to take this issue to authorities. In addition to the Canadian Transportation Agency, I also might have considered contacting Italian regulators. (In the United States, you would have been able to complain to the U.S. Department of Transportation.)
I contacted Alitalia on your behalf. It said that it also heard from Canadian authorities about your case. It apologized for the way in which it handled your claim and paid you the 600 euros you’re owed. It also promised to address your case with customer-care agents “to ensure we avoid similar mistakes in the future.”
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at email@example.com.