Loophole in EU legislation exposed thousands of air passengers amid the Covid-19 crisisEuropean air passengers generally enjoy a good deal of rights related to flight delays and cancellations. Carriers are obliged to transport passengers to their final destination on time, provide meals & accommodation in case of missed connections and offer fulll refund in case of cancellations or schedule changes. In many of the cases passengers on EU flights are also entitled to additional compensation of up to EUR 600. But there is one particular group of air travellers, who don’t enjoy the same rights. These are people traveling on self-connecting (aka virtually interlined) flights. Self-connecting flights consist of two or more legs served by different (unrelated) airlines. In the case with self-connecting, if one flight is delayed or cancelled and the passenger misses the connecting flight, there is no compensation and no refund for the missed flight. When we use different means of transport, this is somewhat common sense. We cannot seek compensation from a taxi driver if we arrive late at the airport and as a result miss a flight. The problem comes when someone finds a good flight deal on Skyscanner.com (or elsewhere online) and books it without realizing it is a self-connecting flight combination. In fact, chances of this happening are very high. According to a 2019 study by the consulting company SafeConnect involving 360 routes across Europe which are not served by direct flights, 35,3% of the cheapest offers were self-connecting flight bundles.
As the SafeConnect data shows, over the past years self-connecting flights have become extremely popular and thousands of people would book them every day. The growth of self-connecting has been been fueled by online travel agencies (OTAs), the most aggressive one being the Czech company Kiwi.com. Kiwi.com pre-bundles flights from various airlines into seamless combinations and offers passenger protection via its own (insurance) service called Kiwi.com guarantee. Since these combinations are so cheap, Kiwi.com marks up heavily, sometimes 30%-40% on top of the original ticket prices. As a result, the company has grown massively and currently almost completely dominates the self-connecting flight market.
OTAs like Kiwi.com have complete freedom over bundling flights together as self-connecting flights are not covered by the EU legislation. The EU passenger rights related to missed connections apply only when the connecting flights are part of a single contract of carriage. The EU packaged travel directive only applies on bundles consisting of unrelated items of different origin like flight and hotel for example. Under this directive, self-connecting combinations are not travel packages as they consist of flights only. Self-connect bundles appear next to regular offers in OTA search results and often passengers don’t even realize that they are booking a different air product; Even those who bought self-connecting flights with a connection guarantee are not completely safe. In case of missed connections or other incidents, many of them realize that the connection guarantee service actually does not work due to its limited scope, usually written in the small prints. Many of the passengers face extreme problems during their trips, for example the need to have a transit visa, because the connecting airport lacks an airside transit area. In such situations passengers are left completely on their own. Apart from the huge stress, this ends up costing them a lot of money too.
While over the past few years the problems affecting self-connecting passengers have somehow gone unnoticed, during the Covid-19 crisis, they became highly visible. The crisis started to unfold in Europe in the middle of February 2020, when airlines began canceling flights on a massive scale. The first hardest hit airport was Milan Bergamo (BGY), which was closest to the Coronavirus epicenter in Italy. BGY is a major base for Wizz Air and Ryan Air and a major transfer point for self-connecting flights. Anyone holding a ticket to and from BGY was at risk.
Airlines operating in EU have refund policies harmonized with EU regulations, but it seems that passengers who booked bundle flights with Kiwi.com were deprived from rights to claim refunds. When OTAs bundle separate flights together, they usually hide the original reservation numbers so that passengers cannot interact with the airlines directly. This way, passengers have to go thru the agency for everything – from online checkin to claiming refunds. This gave freedom to Kiwi.com to implement their own refund policy for Covid-19 cancellations, offering partial Kiwi.com credit instead of real money or charging EUR 20 to process each refund request with the involved airlines.
The size of the self-connecting flight market is not known precisely as statistically the bookings are counted as separate point to point flights. On their website Kiwi.com claims to sell over 35,000 seats a day globally (this information relates to the pre Covid-19 period). On 24.03.2020 Kiwi.com claimed on their LinkedIn page to have over 103,000 passengers in transit, stuck one way or another as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. It is reasonable to assume that the Covid-19 affected times more self-connecting passengers. Everyone of them experienced huge stress, lost money and those who decided to fight for their rights face grim prospects. Thousands of passenger reviews left on Truspilot.com during the past months speak of horrifying stories. They can be accessed by clicking on the following link : https://www.trustpilot.com/review/kiwi.com
The aviation market will recover and people will be up in the air again. There are a lot of lessons to be learned and loopholes to be fixed.
Published by Connectionreview on 03/08/2020