Last updated: April 20, 2010 11:27 am

Volcanic ash: Q&A on travellers’ rights

How long will it take to get back to normal after flights start again? How long is a piece of string? As a spokeswoman for British Airways, one of the worst-hit airlines, said yesterday: "This is such a unique situation we can't say at this point." Suffice to say that it is likely to be some days.

Who will get priority when flights resume, those who have been disrupted or those with bookings for that day? Normally, when airlines face disruption from weather or strike action, they try to make sure people who have booked ahead still fly and make separate arrangements to rescue stranded passengers or others with cancelled flights.

That way, they have one set of frustrated customers rather than two. So far, airlines are advising this should be the case as airspace reopens, but given the extent of disruption, it may be too soon to be absolutely sure.

Some airlines say I am on my own but government ministers say I am entitled to hotel and food under European Union regulations. Who is right? The ministers are correct. Under the EU's passenger bill of rights, the airline is obliged to reimburse you for the price of your ticket or - if you opt to be rerouted - provide hotel, food and other amenities. The catch is that if you ask to be reimbursed, then the airline is released from other obligations.

Also, if you are reimbursed you will have to absorb the difference between what you paid for your original ticket and the cost of rebooking.

How long are they obliged to compensate me for? The law states that airlines must feed and house passengers "for one or more nights, as appropriate". In theory, that means the airlines have to provide such amenities until they have successfully rerouted you - however long that is. But we are in slightly uncharted waters here because passengers rarely need accommodation for more than a night. European Commission officials say that most passengers are taking matters into their own hands and making alternative arrangements rather than testing the airlines' commitments.

My flight was cancelled and my airline says I have to rebook and travel within 30 days or pay extra to fly when I next want to. Is this legal? Not if your flight was covered by European Commission rule 261/2004, which says the date of the new flight should be at your convenience and you should not have to pay any more money. The Air Transport Users Council, the UK passenger lobby group, has seen evidence of breaches by airlines, however.

How come small aircraft have not been grounded and why can't the airlines make more use of them? Flying was not banned. Controlled airspace has been closed to flights conducted under instrument flight rules because the European bodies that control airspace believe they cannot guarantee aircraft safety.

Flights can still take place in what is called uncontrolled airspace - which is where there might be a radar service but flights are made under visual flight rules.

Since airspace at large airports is controlled, they would then not be able to land, except at very small aerodromes.

The CAA also issued advice that all non-essential aerial activity should be cancelled since ash clouds could be encountered at very low levels.

What is the best way to get from London to New York? A number of London travel agencies had been advising people who had been stranded to stay put and wait in the hope that UK airspace would soon reopen.

Some travellers have been trying to get to airports in European countries where airports have stayed open, or reopened, such as Spain, Norway and parts of France.

However, there is a large number of people attempting to do this and some of the airlines are so overwhelmed that it is hard to make bookings.

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