Even before the flying kangaroo got back into the air late on Monday, questions were raised about Qantas’ treatment of its passengers stranded across various parts of the world for two days.

The airline provided food, refreshments and accommodation for those affected. Does Qantas legally have to provide those expenses? Is it liable for compensation to passengers? Why did those stuck in Europe get paid hundreds of euros cash?

Crikey examines the consumer aviation rights for anyone grounded in Melbourne, London and Los Angeles …

Melbourne, Australia:

In Australia, Qantas and all airline passengers are covered by the Civil Aviation Act 1959 and Montreal Convention. Under those, Qantas passengers would be eligible for compensation but would have to make their claim through the courts. With the magnitude of dissatisfied passengers lining up it could be a lengthy process.

In 2009 the Australian incorporated the Montreal Convention into the Civil Aviation Act 1959. The convention denominates compensation in Special Drawing Rights (SDR), supplementary foreign reserve assets maintained by the IMF. The current exchange rate for 1SDR is $AUD1.50.

Article 19 of the convention states that the carrier is liable for damages caused to passengers that are as a result of delay. Article 22 limits the amount of compensation the carrier is liable for to 4150SDR ($AUD6232). This is the maximum amount of damages that can be awarded, not a guaranteed amount. However, the article allows for further damages to be awarded by the court under its own law, including costs and expenses.

There is a “loophole” for carriers in that if the carrier can prove they explored all reasonable routes to avoid the “damage” and then it was impossible to avoid the delay then the carrier is not liable.

For Qantas passengers to receive compensation under the Montreal Convention they would need to go through the courts. It is the responsibility of the passenger to pursue their case, not the airline. And the Montreal Convention is only relative to signatories to the convention (the European Union, US, Canada, China, New Zealand, Singapore, Japan, and Australia).

London, United Kingdom:

Qantas passengers stranded in the United Kingdom are entitled to compensation under European Union law Regulation 261/2004. There is no need for court proceedings to retrieve compensation because of this.

When it comes to attaining a new flight under the European regulation, passengers can opt to take the next available flight to the same destination, opt for a flight that is more convenient, or opt for a refund of the ticket and a return flight to the point of departure. Compensation is dependent on length of travel and length of delay the passenger encountered. The minimum amount of compensation per passenger is €125 and the maximum is €600.

Airlines may also be liable to provide food, refreshments and accommodation, all of which are dependent on the duration of the delay. The monetary breakdown of compensation:

  • €125 compensation for a passenger travelling up to 1500km and delayed up to two hours
  • €250 compensation for a passenger travelling up to 1500km and delayed by more than two hours
  • €200 compensation for a passenger travelling up to 1500-3500km and delayed up to three hours
  • €400 compensation for a passenger travelling up to 1500-3500km by more than three hours
  • €300 compensation for a passenger travelling up to 3500km delayed up to four hours
  • €600 compensation for a passenger travelling up to 3500km delayed by more than four hours

Eligible passengers must contact the airline to receive their compensation. However, passengers that are denied boarding are to be given their compensation on the day.

The European Union does offer some protection to the airlines, so that in the case of “extraordinary circumstances” such as strikes or political instability, airlines may not be obliged to offer compensation. Under Regulation 261/2004 each Qantas passenger stranded in London travelling to outside of the European Union is eligible for €600 compensation as well as food, refreshments, accommodation and a new flight.

Los Angeles, USA:

As there is no federal law in the United States that requires airlines to compensate passengers on delayed or cancelled flights, Qantas passengers stranded in Los Angeles do not automatically qualify for compensation. But they could undertake court proceedings to retrieve damages because the US is a signatory on the Montreal Convention.

The Department of Transport’s “Fly-Rights: A consumer guide to air travel” advises that “airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or cancelled”. Rather than suggesting compensation, the Department of Transport states that most airlines rebook passengers on the next available flight. If there is a lengthy delay in the gap between the original and rebooked flight then consumers can inquire if the airline will endorse your ticket with another carrier offering an earlier flight. Neither airline is obliged to honour this recommendation.

Similarly, in the instance of lengthy delays it is the passenger’s responsibility to inquire if the airline will provide any food, refreshments or accommodation. Once again, there is no federal requirement obliging the airline to provide these services.

Judging from Crikey‘s investigations, if your airline is going to ruin your holiday or business trip then let it be in Europe — while you may miss that ski session or important meeting, nearly every time you’ll emerge financially on top.