The Travel Adviser: Hit them where it hurts!

New Knesset law will mandate compensation for travelers who experience flight delays and cancellations.

El-Al passengers waiting to board flight 370 (photo credit: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)
El-Al passengers waiting to board flight 370
(photo credit: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)
We will cross borders. We will cross borders for knowledge.
We will cross borders to learn from other governments.
We will cross borders to finally grasp the importance of consumer protection.
Be it Occupy Wall Street or demonstrations in Tel Aviv, the bedraggled and befuddled consumer will finally be able to have some legislation to help them when airlines cancel or postpone flights.
No longer the domain of ‘force majeure,’ the Knesset passed a bill last month – when it thought it was just hours away from dissolution – requiring airlines to give passengers benefits if flights are delayed for over two hours or canceled.
But first, let’s look what’s happening in the US.
As millions of Americans take to the skies for the opening of summer, families in particular are encountering unprecedented hurdles with air travel that could easily be eased if airlines truly focused on customer needs and kept fees for seating, boarding and the like transparent. But since most airlines fail to do so, families often face fees for seating that make it hard for parents to sit with their children, or are even barred from pre-boarding.
Just in time for the summer season, families traveling with small children on United Airlines will no longer be able to board early. While Continental Airlines did used to allow families to pre-board, the old United did not, and now with the merger United Airlines has decided to make them board with the other ticketed passengers.
Art Sackler, executive director of Open Airlines for Airfare Transparency, asserts “What makes the behavior of the airlines even more exasperating for families is the failure to provide airfares on an “All-in” (fares, taxes and fee) basis upfront.
By US federal law, airlines are not supposed to engage in “unfair” or “deceptive” behavior, but withholding fees is certainly unfair and may be deceptive. But with upfront disclosure of services, one-stop shopping with a travel agency or other travel service provider, consumers could largely avoid such onerous circumstances. What happens prior to a flight or as you’re boarding is magnified when your flight is delayed.
But finally here in Israel, a law has been passed that grants protections to passengers.
The law that goes into effect mid-August covers all airlines flying to, from and within Israel to any destination worldwide. One of the legal advisers of the new legislation is David Sprecher, a Jerusalem-based attorney known throughout Israel and Europe as an expert in airline legislation and litigation.
The Knesset Finance Committee labored many months, with the cooperation of the airline representatives, the Histadrut, the Association of Israeli Travel Agents and enough lawyers to fill a small classroom to come up with the law.
NEW CHANGES The law to date only applied to European airlines on flights coming to or from Europe. This led to the absurd reality that Israeli airlines and their passengers enjoyed no protection for flights that originated in Israel. Furthermore, no coverage was granted to domestic flight passengers.
The new law covers all airlines that fly into or out of Israel to any destination whether domestic or international.
As you can imagine, the Israeli airlines lobbied furiously to keep their exemption but were rebuffed.
Moreover, the law allows no differential between charter flights and scheduled flights.
ASSISTANCE AND COMPENSATION The law adopted the European model of a clear delineation between assistance and compensation. The assistance is given to all passengers on flights delayed more than two hours and includes provision of meals, ways of communications (phone calls, fax or text message) with third parties and systems of rerouting in cases of flight cancellations or long delays.
In addition there is now the option of receiving a cash refund for flights, rather than some promissory note good for future travel; a practice which causes most recipients to grind their teeth.
The law also sets down the different mechanisms between airline companies and tourism organizers; eg. travel agents.
REFUNDS The Knesset took notice that when the passenger is entitled to a refund of his plane ticket, he is entitled to a full refund including the flights that were not utilized.
It will soon be the responsibility of the airline to give back all the money that was paid toward the trip so that the entire policy of cancellation fees will not be applicable.
It has set out a strong timetable for the remittance to take place, up to 45 days in the most extreme circumstances.
The Israeli law goes further than the European legislation by introducing a fine up to NIS 10,000 if the refund is not received in time.
PACKAGED TOURS Another challenge was the question on many consumer’s minds of the airline ticket price when purchased as part of a package that covers both hotel and air. The solution was quite elegant.
A compendium was created breaking down the exact figure to be refunded based on such characteristics as flight type, class and distances. This leaves no room for a tour organizer to “guesstimate” the cost of the flight.
TIME DELAYS The bulk of the compensation legislation deals with delayed flights and an entire mechanism will be in place detailing the exact amounts. However, the Israeli legislation also awards damages for flights brought forward! If the time of your flight has been brought forward and you had to cut short your time abroad or cancel an important business meeting to race to the airport, you will be compensated.
My research has shown Israel is the first country with such a clause.
It should be pointed out that an aggrieved client can only sue in one country; if one elects to file suit in Europe one cannot file suit in Israel. The main advantage thus should be the calculation of compensation which will be paid out. The one drawback of the Israeli legislature is to reach significant levels of compensation; the distance of the flight is the first criteria rather than the price of the ticket. Example a delay on a flight to Athens will result in far less compensation than a flight to Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, the law is a momentous breakthrough in the Israeli aviation law industry and there is little doubt it will have an influence both in Europe and in the United States.
So next time you question what exactly Knesset committees do, know that in this instance, they made us proud.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questions & comments, email him at [email protected]