I am traveling to Europe this summer and am worried that airline strikes might impact my trip. What can I do if my flight is canceled?

By Amy Farley
June 08, 2012

Question submitted by Janeen Moyer, New York, N.Y.

Trip Doctor’s Answer

Twice I’ve found myself facing down airline strikes: once while holding an Air France ticket from New York to Paris (the strike evaporated harmlessly a few hours before we took off), the other time with a canceled-at-the-last-minute Aerolíneas Argentinas flight to Buenos Aires (I had to beg for a refund and managed to book a more expensive ticket on another airline for the following day). Both experiences left me frustrated by just how few rights travelers have in this scenario.

Unfortunately, it seems that you have good reason to be concerned about strikes this summer. I asked aviation expert Paul V. Mifsud, who runs the Mifsud Consulting Group, for insights into how the extended economic downturn in Europe might impact airline labor relations. As the former vice president of government and legal affairs for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, he has a good perspective on the situation. “This is the sort of tense moment when labor makes a move,” he explained. “In seriously bad times, they’re trying to hold on to jobs. But during these uncertain, in-between times, that’s when strikes happen.” (Easytravelreport.com, which keeps tabs on transit-worker strikes worldwide, is an excellent way to track what’s on the horizon.) Mifsud does, however, point out that labor strikes in Europe tend to do less damage to flight schedules than those in North America: European strikes last a day, maybe two, and then everything clears up, somewhat like a bad snowstorm. Or they’re announced well in advance, so airlines have time to rebook their passengers.

That said, even a daylong disruption can wreak havoc on travel plans. And although the U.S. Department of Transportation and the European Union have both outlined the obligations of carriers when dealing with a flight cancellation, most of these rules do not apply in the case of “force majeure” or “extraordinary circumstances,” which labor strikes fall under. The European Union does require any carrier flying to or from EU countries (plus Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland) to offer strike-stranded passengers compensation for meals, hotel accommodations, and transfers, as necessary. But you’re still at the mercy of your airline regarding how—and when—it plans to rebook or refund you. Many won’t do either until your flight is actually canceled, which (as I discovered) could happen just a few hours before departure. And, once the flight is canceled, the airline’s only obligation is to get you to your destination “at the earliest available opportunity.” That vaguely worded caveat is small consolation if you have a complicated itinerary that requires an on-time arrival. While there’s no foolproof way to avoid schedule disruptions, here are a few steps you can take to lower your risk of getting stranded.

Airline Strike Prep: Before You Book

Look for airlines—and countries—that are less prone to labor disruptions. According to Mifsud, carriers based in England and northern Europe have better track records; Italy and France have more of a reputation for strikes among airline employees and on-the-ground personnel.

• Stick with airlines that have alliance partners. If your carrier is affected by a strike, it will be better positioned to get you on an alternate airline.

• Purchase travel insurance. Make sure it covers cancellations due to strikes—and that you buy it before one is announced.

• If your trip is complex and expensive, and if air travel is a critical cog, enlist a travel agent, who can help with rebooking, if necessary, and may have options that aren’t available to you.

Airline Strike Prep: When Trouble Hits

• If you absolutely must get out on time, buy a fully refundable (though costlier) ticket on an alternate carrier as a backup plan. If your original flight is canceled, you’ll be eligible for reimbursement and can use the second ticket to depart as scheduled.

Call and call again. Strikes are fast-moving situations. So if you’re not getting the response you want from one agent (“I’m sorry, sir, we can’t rebook you until your flight is canceled”), there’s a chance another agent will be more flexible.

• If you’re flying within Europe and facing a long flight delay, consider getting a refund on your airline ticket and putting that money toward high-speed rail instead.

• Follow your carrier on Twitter for breaking news and updates.

Need a travel Rx? The trip doctor is in. Send your question to Amy at tripdoctor@aexp.com.