A pandemic is probably the last thing on a soon-to-be-married couple’s mind, especially when their time is taken over by wedding planning, and putting the final touches on their new home. And yet, with the outbreak of a global pandemic, the nightmare of a cancelled honeymoon trip suddenly became true. Honeymoon will need to be delayed, but not all is lost.
Suddenly, travel bans and closure of airports around the world dominated the aviation industry, and Malta was no exception. By effect of Legal Notice 42 of 2020 and 92 of 2020, all travel to and from Malta was banned, and this effectively meant the cancellation of most flights. But what are the options and remedies available to individuals who had their flights cancelled?
Airlines were initially promising to refund passengers for their flights, but later found themselves realising that the situation might persist for longer than initially expected. By refunding the total value of the flight, their cashflow was severely impacted, and the travel industry started offering future travel credit instead. Couples soon began to discover that vouchers might not be the best solution to their problem, particularly since a number of vouchers that were being offered expire before their re-scheduled big day. But are couples obliged to accept a voucher? Or should they insist on being given a full cash refund? What does the law state in relation to this?
The principal law regulating passenger rights when flights are cancelled is the European Union Regulation no. 261/2004, which applies for passengers departing from an airport located in a Member State of the EU, and those leaving an airport located in a third country for one situated in a Member State, and where an EU carrier operates the flight. This legislation clearly provides that where a flight is cancelled, it is the passenger’s choice to decide between receiving reimbursement and being re-routed. In view of the current impossibility of the latter option, the former option is the only realistic option for couples. To this end, reimbursement is to be given to passengers within seven days and is to represent the full cost of the ticket price at which it was bought.
In this context, it is worth noting that the issue of a travel voucher is indeed a form of reimbursement, but such an option is subject to passenger approval. Therefore, the bottom line is that although vouchers are indeed permissible as a form of reimbursement, these cannot be imposed upon the passenger, since ultimately the passenger had paid for a service which was not performed. Rather than being the only option offered to the passenger, travel vouchers should be offered as an alternative to a refund of the ticket price, and if freely accepted by the passengers, will constitute effective reinbursement. The European Commission, in its March 2020 guidelines, recommended that travel vouchers are to satisfy a number of criteria, including a minimum validity period of twelve months. Nevertheless, such recommendations are not binding, and Member States have also adopted separate measures to protect the passengers’ rights.
Very often, honeymooners book their dream holiday through a tour operator, since this is a convenient way to go. Whilst leaving the arrangements in the hands of travel experts gives the couple a sense of security and comfort, this option also provides them with enhanced consumer rights. The ‘Package Travel Directive’ applies where a passenger purchases flights through a tour operator, by combining two or more types of services, such as transport and accommodation. As opposed to independent travellers, couples opting for package travel have the right to terminate the package travel before the start of the package in the event of unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances occurring at the place of destination or its immediate vicinity, and which circumstances significantly affect the performance of the package, or which significantly affect the carriage of passengers to the destination. It is conceivable that the COVID-19 pandemic is tantamount to the scenario envisaged by the law, where cancellation is a reasonable choice. Furthermore, the law provides that where the traveller terminates such package contract due to the foregoing reason, the tour operator shall refund any payments made, and by effect of Legal Notice 80 of 2020, such refund shall be made not later than six months from the termination of the said package.
Couples facing a situation as envisaged in this commentary, are encouraged to get in touch with their airline or their tour operator as the case may be, and to approach the subject proactively, with an open mind, and with full knowledge of their rights as passengers and consumers.
Dr. Christopher Vella
Commercial Law - Civil Law
This commentary should not be regarded as legal advice, If you are facing legal issues affecting your passenger rights, kindly contact us so we can assist you.