We booked a mistake fare back to England to see friends and visit the Christmas Markets. Mistake fares always present outsized value for the product sold, but on this occasion we got all of our money back and profited to the tune of $1500+. Here’s why we were rooting for a longer delay.
EU261 For The Win
The European rule EU261/2014 outlines rules for airlines regarding compensation due to passengers as a result of avoidable delays or cancellations. I wrote here about how the US needs similar protections for customers. To avoid making this a post about the rule itself, instead I will link to the Wikipedia page about it and simplify it to the following criteria:
- If your flight is to/from/transiting Europe (regardless of where or how you bought your ticket and whether or not is revenue or award miles) you are entitled to the compensation rules. It does not have to be a European airline to qualify.
- If your flight is trans-Atlantic (3500 kms or longer) payouts are €300 distributed in your local currency for a delay of 180-239 minutes (three hours but not four) and doubles to €600 per passenger for delays of 240 minutes or longer.
- The delay or cancelation must be for a reason within the airline’s control such as maintenance – weather delays garner nothing.
- Refreshments must be provided and if there is an overnight cancelation, a hotel room too.
- For shorter-haul flights the compensation is lower and you can find an exhaustive explanation of the rule at the aforementioned Wikipedia page.
Longer Delays = Better
If you are going to be delayed 179 minutes, you really want 180, and if you’re at 230 minutes, what is 10 minutes more? Anything less than those three hours delayed on the airplane and it’s “Sorry Charlie” but the moment the clock strikes three hours we get a fairly sizable distribution – in the United States you get just water and the option to leave the aircraft if you so choose. Knowing the rule well, we were watching the clock pretty closely as we got close to those benchmarks. We originally pushed back prior to the 180 minutes which was the worst possible situation, but then our luck changed.
Boarding was completed on time and ahead of schedule, but unfortunately the door never really closed. I could see the high visibility jacket of the local airport Swissport maintenance liaison well after we should have pushed back and in the absence of an announcement it was clearly a maintenance problem.
We were told (about 20 minutes in to the delay) that the local staff was looking after a small maintenance issue and we should be ready to push back soon, we fully expected to go shortly thereafter. More than an hour into the matter it surfaced that the issue was related to the hydraulics (thus not a fast remedy) and we were asked to grab our things and disembark the plane. All 189 of us – that detail will be key later.
Upon exiting the aircraft with our carry-on luggage all passengers were given a critical security document. In our hands we held a highly prized, laminated, pink, construction paper bookmark with the words “Transit Boarding Pass” in black letters across the top and the Swissport logo. Seems legit.
We made our way to the rest of Terminal One in an attempt to rid our wallets of the pesky remaining GBP in our pockets and buy some books to accompany our newly acquired bookmarks – this delay could last awhile. We were told that the new departure would be 2PM (originally scheduled for 11:55AM) but given that the plane wasn’t even empty yet when we exited the satellite extension of Manchester’s Terminal One at 1:16PM, this seemed less than likely. For good measure, we started back towards our gate at 1:48PM where we found a departure board along the way – our flight had reappeared – “New Information at 1500” was the new byline for our flight.
I was eyeing up a Cornish pasty when one of the passengers from our flight mentioned that our flight was again boarding. Carly looked back towards the sign which now showed “New Information at 1415” and I looked longingly towards The Pasty Shop. An announcement then came over the PA asking “any remaining passengers” to please board the flight now. Being a responsible mother and considerate fellow traveler she dragged our family of three back to the gate where we found just two other families boarding ahead of us, the terminal otherwise cleared of any passengers. Eek, that could have been bad. We wouldn’t have wanted to spend an extra day in Manchester because of our own lackadaisical approach, and we really didn’t want to hold up the flight – though we would have gladly accepted a 24 hour delay, free hotel and the compensation. Luckily another couple of stragglers found their way on board after us and made us feel better that we alone had not held the departure up.
We finally pushed off from the terminal at around 2:15PM, we weren’t even close to the three-hour minimum delay for compensation to be due. Though while we had pushed back, we did not actually depart then, that is to say that we held short of the runway for several minutes. It was after more than ten minutes that I looked at my wife and said we were going back to the gate. The captain confirmed such shortly thereafter.
“Some passengers have decided not to go back to Toronto with us today, but their bags were not offloaded so we need to go back to the gate, get their bags removed and top up a bit of fuel. It is unlawful to transport a bag without the passenger on board but this stop shouldn’t take too long.”
We returned to the gate and found that a few things had happened. The first was that yes, they would need to offload anyone’s bag who chose not to fly, but none of those passengers had actually chosen not to fly, they instead followed the instructions on the departure board and did not hear the final announcement for boarding. Once back at the gate it would actually be less work to let those passengers back onto the aircraft than it would to hunt down their bags and remove them as a technicality when they truly did want to join the flight. But baggage might not have been the true reason for the delay.
How did this happen? Why weren’t emphatic calls made over the PA? Because they thought they had the right amount of people. When the agents were collecting the bookmarks back from passengers as they re-boarded the aircraft they counted the cards and were pre-disposed to expect a certain number of passengers, the 189 that had boarded.
Something doesn’t add up, literally. Passengers were each given one card per person, but in the case of lap infants, no cards should have been given to them or their parents. This way only ticketed passengers were counted but as you might have surmised, this was not the case. The staff also should have begun with a limited number of cards (no more than were on the aircraft) therefore when they had handed all of the cards out but passengers continued to disembark the error would have been discovered – but this also did not happen. Had either of these actions taken place, there would have been a quick and easy process and no passengers would have been left behind.
Instead, multiple Swissport staff members simultaneously passed out bookmarks to any passenger disembarking failing to determine whether the child was ticketed or not. When the aircraft pushed back from the gate they believed the 189 bookmarks they had received were the correct passenger count and cleared the flight to go. Therefore when the four passengers arrived back at the gate (following the instructions on the departure board) to find the plane had already taxied to end of the runway the problem was discovered. The pilot had to return the aircraft to the gate because of the baggage security issue regardless as this complies with a new rule issued after the Indian bomb issue (though it also reminds me more of the Filipino 747 absentee bombing). By the time the aircraft returned to the gate, headcounts were attempted, re-attempted, then attempted again, pushback was after 4PM. We photographed it for our records as a timestamp.
So How Did We Make $1500 From Our Mistake Fare?
The simple math on this is amazing. We purchased all three of our tickets for about $550 combined on a mistake fare or a tremendous discount, I never found a clarification on the matter and frankly, didn’t seek one too hard. The payout of €600/passenger with three of us traveling equated to $2141. When we deduct our original $550, we not only covered our costs of the trip entirely but actually profited over $1500.
I reached out to begin the claim process with Air Transat and their Twitter team was a little confused but ultimately opened a customer service case. Customer service agents greeted the flight and handed each family a document citing the delay and reason for it (mechanical/hydraulic) which would make half of the challenge to a claim a moot point. Without the document, our delay could have been disputable because we did push from the mechanical delay prior to the compensation point (three hours), however with it, we should have all the documentation we need. Additionally, the departure of four hours and eight minutes was listed on the form settling any other dispute the airline might have claimed. It is certainly the most forward and compliant approach and Air Transat should be commended on this.
While they were quick to respond on Twitter, their email team reached out with an email, and they supplied a physical document – the ease of compliant compensation ended there. We haven’t heard back from Air Transat in several days (even to acknowledge receipt of the communication) or in regards to their process for making my claim. On a flight delay with British Airways a customer service agent came on board before we even took off and supplied me with a pre-loaded debit card with the compensation in US dollars already loaded. One concern is that due to the lack of familiarity with the rule and the fact that I was originally routed to lost baggage services when I asked about the claim process, I am unsure of how and when I will receive my due compensation. I purchased my ticket through an American third-party site (Orbitz), flew from Canada direct and compensation amounts were in Euros, will they then issue a check in Canadian dollars for the equivalent amount?
Several passengers commented on their concerns for security as everyone re-boarded the aircraft. At least one Swissport staff member misunderstood this concern to be the result of a misguided passenger who didn’t understand everyone had been through security so everyone was safe. He took it that the passenger didn’t understand that none of the passengers on the plane could have been unsafe because they all went through the same screening process.
But that wasn’t her point and she had a valid one. The passenger manifest was not consulted upon our initial departure from the gate – no one checked that the passengers carrying bookmarks and getting back on the plane were actually those passengers. A nefarious character could have certainly obtained a bookmark and entered the flight with either harmful intent or perhaps some other unintended purpose. Maybe they bought a ticket to Guernsey and thought they fancied Toronto but hadn’t wanted to pay the price, maybe someone picked up a bookmark off the ground and walked in the direction where others holding the same cards were headed. People are just weird from time-to-time and when simply counting pink bookmarks can’t be managed by a team of no less than four Swissport staffers, I side with the concerned passenger.
While I initially agreed with the sentiment of the annoyed Swissport employee that there shouldn’t have been any direct threat as everyone went through security and had been cleared – the airside/landside quarantine was never breached – the passenger had a point we should know that at least the people who were supposed to be on the plane were in fact the people on the plane, especially because at the time of original pushback, they weren’t.
I discussed this with an FA who had his own words regarding the operation management by Swissport on the ground in Manchester. While he was professional, he coulnd’t believe it had happened at all and I agreed with him entirely. He suggested that any security concerns based on the above scenarios would be pretty far-fetched given the number of circumstances and amount of planning such a security breach would take, however, he did concede that it was possible – and possible is not something anyone should take a chance with.
Would you be happy the delay ended up with such large compensation or prefer to get where you’re going down to the minute faster? Do you think that there was a real security concern at Manchester Airport, or just a series of poorly executed protocols?