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Legal Ease: Storm clouds over your travel plans?

Missed flight? Missed boat? Is there light at the end of the vacation?

Missed flight? Missed boat? Is there light at the end of the vacation? (Photo by Hayley Juhl)

What better way to experience friendship or romance than a lovely vacation together?

One December, friends purchased tickets from a local travel agent for a trip to London, England, where they would spend several days before travelling by train to Paris. They were scheduled to leave May 17. They reserved their London hotel room starting May 18, and purchased train tickets to Paris, where they booked a hotel room.

Their travel agent purchased the airline tickets from a tour company and the friends received a four-page receipt that stated flight times were subject to change and the airline had the right to modify the time and type of plane. It was the responsibility of the traveller to verify the flight schedule. General conditions were published by the tour company and available on the Internet. These conditions stated that the tour company would not be responsible for damages resulting from failure to perform its obligations, loss resulting from delay or cancellation, deterioration of quality of service, loss of enjoyment, frustration, inconvenience resulting from fortuitous events or from any unintentional event that could not be reasonably foreseen. It also stated it would not be responsible for failure on the part of the hotel or other suppliers with which it did business. The friends did not go online to see these conditions.

In February, the travellers were advised that their May 17 flight had been cancelled by the airline and were given the choice of obtaining a full reimbursement or taking the flight two days earlier. The earlier flight cost a few hundred dollars more.

They opted for the earlier date but wrote the travel agent to say they had no choice and that the change had caused them to incur additional costs. When they returned from their trip, they sued the tour company in small claims court for the cost of the additional nights in the hotel, meals, métro tickets and inconvenience.

The court invoked the Quebec Consumer Protection Act and held that a contract had been entered into between the friends and the tour company by virtue of which the tour company had a responsibility to fulfill its obligations and could not exonerate itself from the consequences of its own actions or those of its representatives. The tour company was the agent of the airline and therefore responsible for its actions. The acceptance of the new date could not be interpreted as a renunciation of rights—because the defendant had not fulfilled its obligations, the friends were awarded damages.

In another case, as a romantic celebration of their 40th wedding anniversary, a couple purchased a flight-cruise package that would take them from Montreal to Casablanca and then to Barcelona, where they would board a cruise ship. They purchased the trip from a travel agent in July for a trip the following February.

The flight from Montreal was delayed for about 2.5 hours due to mechanical problems. The couple was worried about the Casablanca connection but was told by the airline agent there would be a second flight. In Casablanca, they were advised that the flight to Barcelona was delayed. They addressed their concerns about the ship’s departure time to an airline agent, who told them everything could be arranged once they arrived in Barcelona—yet the ship departed an hour and half before they landed and the airline counter was closed. A representative of another airline referred them to a hotel near the airport and the next morning they went to the airline office in Barcelona to arrange to catch up to the cruise.

Nothing could be done and the agent suggested they spend their time in Barcelona and return with their already scheduled return flight. Instead, they bought tickets home with a different airline. Once home, they claimed hotel, restaurant and taxi expenses, plus the cost of the return ticket and damages for stress.

The court found the first delay—due to mechanical problems—could be considered a fortuitous event for which the tour company was not responsible. With regard to the second delay, the court invoked the International Air Transport Convention, which states an airline is responsible for damages resulting from flight delays unless it can establish that its representatives and employees have done everything possible to prevent the damages to the traveler or it was impossible for them to do so. The airline had not established that it had done so and damages were awarded.

But remember: For every travel plan that goes wrong, hundreds go well.

So, bon voyage, and good luck.

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