James Walker: Best course of action if grounded by strikes

August is peak time for holidays. But it’s also a time when airlines, ground staff and air traffic controllers can go on strike. So far this summer we’ve dodged a few major strikes – but not before thousands of people had their original plans changed or cancelled. And with more strikes in the offing, what are your rights?

You shouldn't be left stranded like this passenger at Heathrow. Picture: Carl de Souza/Getty

Do I get compensation if my flight is cancelled?

When it comes to EU legislation on airline compensation, the short answer is people affected by airline strike action are likely to be covered by the compensation rules, people affected by the airport or air traffic strikes aren’t.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

If the delay or cancellation is something the airline could have foreseen or done something about then compensation is applicable. This is generally held to include strike action by their own staff. So your airline should pay compensation.

However, if it’s something outside of the airline’s own powers, like the recent Heathrow ground staff strike, that’s not the airline’s fault and therefore they would not usually have to pay the compensation – though the airlines affected would still have to try to get everyone rebooked as soon as possible. We’d also expect them to deal with the impact on getting you to a new airport too.

So what happens as a result of the airport strike?

Even if a strike is called off, lots of holidaymakers are likely to be affected because some airlines pre-emptively cancel flights.

In this case speak to the airline or check online to see what they’re advising. If the airport looks likely to be open and running but if a walkout goes ahead, it will add time to things like checking in and security. So if you miss your flight due to not making it to the gate on time, you’ll be out of luck. Passengers should follow the airline’s advice for arrival times. They usually say two hours for short haul and three for long haul, but in reality it’s the same queues for everyone, so I’d go with three hours – especially if you have luggage to check in.

What if your flight is cancelled?

This is where the airline should swing into action. They’re obliged to get you where you need to be as soon as possible, but that doesn’t necessarily mean on another airline, so don’t rush out and rebook without speaking to them. You may have to fly from a different airport though. If the time to rebook you is straying into two days (although there’s no definitive timescale) then it’s reasonable to ask if you can be booked with a competitor.

Connector flights booked as one purchase are covered – the airline should get you to the final destination regardless. But beware the perils of booking separate legs as if you’ve done this and miss your connection there is no obligation on the airline.

If you miss your flight due to the queues

This one is at the airline’s discretion. If you’ve ever seen a latecomer sobbing at the gates, they’re usually out of luck.

A few last tips

Always have a comprehensive travel insurance policy handy. It’s the airline’s responsibility to get you to your destination if there’s a strike, but it’s good to have back-up. Try to book earlier flights where you can. Airlines operate on tight turnarounds so it’s easier to rebook if you have an early fight.