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Sun, Aug. 25

The Travel Troubleshooter: One last WOW Air refund case for the road

Note: WOW Air, the discount Icelandic carrier, ceased operations in March 2019. Just before it went to the great big hangar in the sky, I helped Steven Wu with a refund case that should resonate with all summer air travelers.

Q: Last year, I took a WOW Air flight from Edinburgh, Scotland, to San Francisco via Reykjavik. When I arrived in Iceland, I learned that the inbound flight from San Francisco was delayed five hours. No one from the airline showed up to explain anything.

Under European airline consumer regulations, WOW Air owes me 600 euros for the delay. I filed a claim, but WOW Air said it would take “up to six weeks” to process the claim. Six weeks later, WOW Air offered a 700-euro voucher valid for a year, which I refused.

That was six months ago. I still have not received my money, and in their booking system my claim is still “pending.” I keep calling and emailing them but all I get is: “We appreciate your patience” and “It’s being finalized by legal/claim/finance department.”

As for my emails to customer service, each time they reply, I get a different person answering with the same nonsense, and on Twitter it is identical.

I filed a complaint with Iceland’s transport authority as well, and the airline gave the same non-answer to them. Then the authority stopped being responsive. Can you help me get my refund? — Steven Wu, Stirling, Scotland

A: Before I answer your question, let me say this: WOW Air is dead. It went out of business months ago. The airline wasn’t an overachiever in the customer service department, which may have led to its untimely demise. Delays such as yours were common.

I’m writing about your case because it highlights several real issues for summer air travelers. What do you do when your airline offers a voucher, good for one year from the date of your booking, instead of cash? How do European airline consumer protections affect you? How long is too long to wait for a refund?

You were correct to turn down that 700-euro voucher. Airlines know that a percentage of their ticket credits will go unredeemed. That means the voucher is useless. EU 261 (also referred to as EC 261), the European airline consumer protection law I referenced earlier, is clear that you deserve a 600-euro refund — not a credit. I have a list of common questions and answers about EU 261 on my consumer advocacy site.

There’s always been some confusion about when EU 261 applies. Basically, if you’re flying from an EU country to a non-EU country, you’re covered. If you’re flying from the U.S. to Europe, the regulation applies only to flights operated by an EU carrier. Bottom line: You were covered by EU 261. It definitely applied to your delay, and you were definitely entitled to 600 euros.

One small hitch: EU 261 doesn’t have a provision for a timely refund. So technically, WOW Air did nothing wrong by delaying your claim. You might have had a faster response by contacting one of WOW’s executives or working with an EU 261 claim service such as AirHelp.

You shouldn’t have to wait six months for a compensation check. That’s way too long. Unfortunately, we had several WOW Air cases that dragged on for six months or longer. If you don’t get the money within six weeks, you should start rattling the company’s cage.

The way WOW treated you says a lot. A company that can’t meet its basic customer service obligations is doomed to fail, which is exactly what happened to WOW. It’s gone.

Before WOW expired, I contacted it on your behalf. It sent you the 600 euros, as promised.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler.” You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or email him at chris@elliott.org.

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