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‘Travelers’ Rights’: What happens when they don’t?

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

“Travelers’ Rights” is a favorite topic in just about any medium that covers travel. And those reports generally focus on a laundry list of rights travelers have — some specified by law, some by contract of carriage, some by custom. Air travelers generally have a lot of rights codified by law, in the U.S., Europe, and most other parts of the world. Train travelers in Europe also have legally established rights. The big cruise lines’ trade association publishes a passenger “Bill of Rights.” Some hotel practices are enshrined in industry tradition. Although the rights accorded to folks who rent cars and other travelers are generally conferred only through general contract law, it’s often on your side. But many of those rights — even those established by law — have a big flaw: Nobody is around to enforce them, and they don’t specify what you can get or do when a supplier does not comply with the rules.

As a case in point, reader Don P., who suffers from severe back problems, recently flew home to the U.S. from a trip to Portugal and Spain. His trip required a change of planes in Madrid/Barajas, and he had requested wheelchair assistance. On landing at Madrid, he had to wait 30 minutes for a wheelchair to arrive at the incoming flight, and after changing vans twice and using three different wheelchairs, he was dropped off at a holding area designated for “wheelchair service.” There, he encountered a backlog of more than 30 other travelers waiting for wheelchair service to their departure gates, with not enough attendants to keep up with the need. The few available attendants were assisting travelers on a “first come, first served” basis without regard to flight departure times, and he quickly saw that many of the travelers were missing their connections. Nobody could or would do anything other than wait for an available attendant. So, rather than miss their flight and be stranded at Madrid overnight, Don’s wife, herself nursing a bad knee, retrieved their boarding passes from the bottom of the pile, commandeered an unused wheelchair, and pushed him to the gate. They got to the gate only 18 minutes before departure but made the flight.

EU Regulation 1107/2006 covers an airport’s responsibility to provide “assistance to disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility traveling by air, both to protect them against discrimination and to ensure that they receive assistance.” But what good did that regulation do for Don in Madrid? Nobody there was around to enforce the rule, and the only recourse for travelers was to submit complaints and possibly claim compensation at some point later.

Unfortunately, all too many such “rights,” both regulatory and contractual, specify what a traveler supplier should do, but very few provide for either enforcement or on-the-spot compensation. The only regulations with real teeth deal with limited airline problems, in both the U.S. and Europe. Otherwise, it’s “lots of luck.” The cruise lines’ bill of rights makes a lot of promises but is silent about what happens when a cruise line fails to fulfill one of those promises. If you show up at an overbooked hotel with a confirmed reservation, you have a “right” to a room, but that doesn’t get you a room. If you show up at an airport needing a wheelchair, but there’s nobody available to push it, you don’t get the assistance mandated by EU 1107/2006.

The takeaway is simple: Whenever you face a situation where you’re likely to miss a plane, cruise departure, or whatever else, having a “right” or a regulation on your side doesn’t necessarily solve your problem. Instead, your alternatives are either to accept whatever delay or inconvenience might result, and maybe claim compensation later or improvise your own solution. Equally clear is that although a creative improvisation isn’t always feasible, a practical improvisation almost always beats the “suffer now, complain later” alternative. And you can still complain later.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at rail-guru.com.)

(c) 2017 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC. — November 7, 2017

Ed Perkins is a nationally syndicated travel columnist, with weekly columns appearing in three dozen U.S. newspapers. He was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter and has written for Business Traveller (London), Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, The New Yorker, and National Geographic Traveler.

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