When your cover is a disconnect

JANE E. FRASER
Last updated 05:00 29/05/2013
Flight-Landscape
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ON TIME: It's a horrible feeling, looking at the arrival time for your flight and wondering if you're still going to connect.

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Beware the tight flight connection - it could end up costing you. And don't assume your travel insurance company will pay up.

It's a horrible feeling, looking at the arrival time for your flight and wondering if you're still going to connect.

Most travellers opt for the shortest-possible connections when flying, yet it only takes one delay to set off a domino effect of missed flights and misplaced luggage.

If you're travelling with a single airline, it is relatively safe to go for the shortest-allowable connection, as the airline will generally step up if you miss it due to a delay.

However, if you are booking a multi-leg itinerary with more than one airline, tight connections can be a problem.

Airlines' responsibility is limited legally when it comes to messing up your travel plans, while travel insurance policies are far from being a catch-all for expenses.

Traveller Mary Wagner fell through a gap in her insurance coverage when she missed a flight connection on her way back to Australia from the US.

Wagner, of Toowoomba, Queensland, was flying from Seattle to Brisbane via Los Angeles.

She became stuck in LA after her plane took off late from Seattle because of bad weather and she missed her next flight (with another carrier).

Wagner had to find a hotel in Los Angeles and reorganise her flights, with the delay adding up to 24 hours and about $1192 in expenses.

"I put in my [travel insurance] claim with all the documentation and receipts and was truly shocked with the result," Wagner says.

The insurance provider told her policy did not cover delays under six hours and the flight that was delayed - the original flight out of Seattle - was only three hours late.

"Even though I was delayed 24 hours, which was the domino effect of the original delay, it was considered just an unfortunate consequence," Wagner says.

"Most travel agents and people booking flights online try to arrange the most seamless connections with the least-possible waiting times. I don't think most people would realise that they may not be covered by insurance."

Travellers in the European Union are set to get a better deal under proposed changes to passengers' rights, which would force airlines to compensate passengers for any domino effect caused by a flight delay.

Airlines say it is unworkable, with the liability for even a handful of delayed passengers potentially greater than the entire revenue from the flight.

European carriers have already lost one battle over flight delays, with the Court of Justice of the European Union ruling in late 2012 that airlines must compensate passengers for delays of three hours or more, where the delay is considered to be within the airline's control.

The British Civil Aviation Authority says it has secured more than €95,000 ($151,879) in compensation for British travellers since the ruling was made.

The European Commission is also trying to make airlines take more responsibility for cancelled flights.

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If there is not a seat available on the airline's own services within 12 hours, it would have to consider re-routing on other airlines, with no limit on cost or class or service; a ruling likened by the International Air Transport Association to having a problem with your Bic pen and expecting a luxurious Mont Blanc as compensation.

When it comes to travel insurance, it is important to know that most policies will only cover delays caused by bad weather and not those caused by the airline.

I experienced this when an airline's computer system crashed and caused widespread flight delays.

A call to my insurer gave me nothing more than "make your own arrangements and we will consider your claim" - a claim that was ultimately rejected.

I did, however, manage to get some money back from the airline, offsetting most of my costs.

Whatever the reason for the delay, it is important to take it up with the airline first, as often it will offer accommodation and meal vouchers if your flight is significantly delayed.

For costs that fall outside the airline's offering, make sure you keep all your receipts and get a letter from the airline confirming the delay and its cause, as this will be required by your insurer.

Don't splash out on a five-star hotel and a new outfit - insurers place sub-limits on each category of coverage, with a maximum amount for each day or half-day.

Given the challenges of meeting the criteria for delay-related compensation, it is best to work on the assumption it's coming out of your own pocket and consider it a bonus if someone else pays.

Bagged out

When it's your bag that's delayed, travel insurance will generally kick in after you've spent 12-24 hours without clean undies.

The catch is that there is usually no coverage if you are returning to your home port.

I discovered this when my luggage was mislaid on my way back from an overseas trip, containing the outfit and shoes I needed for a wedding a few days later.

These, along with make-up and other items, had to be replaced at my own cost - only for my luggage to be returned the day after the wedding.

Air watch

If you think it's hard to get your hands on a frequent flyer seat, it could be a lot worse.

Virgin Australia is one of the best airlines in the world for the availability of frequent flyer redemption seats, according to an annual study.

The Qantas Group also ranks highly, coming sixth out of 25 airlines tested in the Switchfly Reward Seat Availability Survey.

To test the availability of frequent flyer seats, the US-based consultancy IdeaWorks Company sent 7560 booking queries to 25 frequent flyer programs.

More than 98 per cent of requests sent to Virgin Australia were successful, placing it second to Air Berlin, GOL and Southwest, which had a three-way tie for first place.

For Qantas, the success rate was 86.4 per cent and represented an improvement on the previous year.

IdeaWorks Company says value-oriented airlines, which consistently dominate the survey's top rankings, have the advantage of operating short-haul and medium-haul flights, often with multiple daily flights.

This makes it easier for these airlines to offer reward seats, compared with long-haul airlines that have less frequent flights and a lower density of seating.

For long-haul carriers, Singapore Airlines came out on top for reward seat availability, with a success rate of 88.6 per cent.

Languishing at the bottom was US Airways, which could only fulfil about 4 per cent of requests.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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