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Strength in numbers: collective consumer actions against poor treatment by Ryanair

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Strength in numbers: collective consumer actions against poor treatment by Ryanair  

As a leader in class actions, Euroconsumers know that collective consumer action works.  Compensation gets to consumers quicker and time and resources are saved. And, as Euroconsumers found recently, when problems inevitably re-occur with the company in question, a fast and effective response is much more likely.

Ryanair: a history of poor consumer practice

Take the case of Ryanair who were the subject of a class action launched by Euroconsumers’ member Test Achats / Test Aankoop in 2018, claiming on behalf of consumers who had their flights cancelled because of a staff strike. If an airline carrier has to cancel a flight due to extraordinary circumstances out of their control (force majeure), such as an air traffic controller strike, it is not obliged to pay compensation.

However, a strike by their own staff is considered within their control, and not ‘force majeure’, therefore passengers are entitled to compensation if the strike action leads to a cancellation or delay. The airline refused to compensate passengers, claiming ‘force majeure’ - a tactic employed to avoid their obligations.

Test Achats / Test Aankoop initiated a class action in July 2019, which was declared admissible by the Belgian court in December 2020. This meant that the case would be heard under Belgian collective action opt-in procedures. This put an end to Ryanair’s attempted strategy of parking the case in the Irish jurisdiction that at the time did not have a collective proceedings mechanism, which would have made it almost impossible for consumers to claim recompense for harm.

Although enforcement at the individual level is possible on paper, in reality the cost, time and risk placed on individuals to bring a claim against a huge company with deep pockets make it impossible. 

Euroconsumers’ member OCU equally launched a campaign to get full compensation for  Spanish consumers who were affected by Ryanair strikes in the summer of 2018. With no progress in negotiations with the airline, OCU filed a class lawsuit in July 2020. OCU requested compensation of €174.626,57 Ryanair accepted that they would pay part of this, € 128,418.79made up of around €102,100.00 as compensation under EU rules and € 26,318.79 for material expenses. At the time of writing, OCU is awaiting the court’s decision on the remaining amount. 

Spanish challenge to abusive airline contract terms

At the same time, Ryanair (along with other airlines) were also in the midst of a legal challenge from OCU who applied to have several unfair and abusive contractual terms struck out for breaking consumer law on unfair contract terms. These included things such as: charging excessive fees for printing out boarding cards at the airport; denying boarding with no explanation or notice; refusing to accept nationally recognised and sanctioned identity documents and charges for storing uncollected baggage kicking in immediately. 

After a ten-year battle, OCU was successful in getting the Supreme Court to strike off 11 of the abusive practices and terms, and launched a follow up class claim called ‘No more excuses’ to ensure that consumers were compensated for the harms and damages they’d incurred.

Settlement with Ryanair 

Back in Belgium, Test Achats / Test Aankoop engaged in parallel negotiations with Ryanair to settle the case.  They finally reached an agreement where all affected passengers will receive a voucher worth between €250 to €400 depending on the length of the delayed journey.  Test Achats / Test Aankoop secured commitments that the voucher could be exchanged for cash if it was not used within a year. 

Acceptable additional costs incurred by the cancellations or delays such as hotel accommodation, food or taxi journeys were also recoverable, either direct from Ryanair or via Test Achats / Test Aankoop on their behalf.  An important victory for the consumer organization and Belgian consumers, as reaching an agreement prior to the hearing meant that passengers affected by the delays and cancellations in 2018 were compensated much sooner than if the entire legal process was seen through to the end.

Then, in Spring of 2022, a similar situation arose. Same company, same problem, same frustration and potential losses for consumers. A strike by Ryanair cabin crew at the end of April meant tens of thousands of consumers were informed that their flights had been cancelled by email and offered the option to choose an alternative flight or refund. 

However, Ryanair was much less transparent about the right to compensation, as stipulated under EU law. The email mentioned that passengers may be eligible for compensation but provided no link to a compensation form, and no attachment with further details. The online form that can be found on the Ryanair website should have given the option to select the cancelled flight and apply for compensation, but it was not actually possible to select a cancelled flight. The form was not fit for purpose, so passengers had no option but to spend hours trying to reach customer service.

Wanting to put a stop to these rights-avoiding tactics immediately, Test Achats/Test Aankoop again sat down with Ryanair for what turned out to be a constructive dialogue. This led to a clear engagement from Ryanair to respect all passenger rights and secured a clear commitment of the Irish airline to respect all passenger rights and  improve consumer communication about the compensation.   

As new Ryanair strikes are being announced as we speak, Test Achats/Test Aankoop remains vigilant and will follow-up closely to make sure all consumers get the options and reimbursements they are entitled to. 

Strength in numbers

The experience with Ryanair demonstrates that showing strength in numbers via a trusted consumer organization pushes companies to do what’s required and learn the futility of obstructing consumer justice.

As mentioned above, for a time Ryanair was able to avoid action because of a lack of collective regime in Ireland. There is hope that the EU Representative Action Directive which comes into force this autumn will change this. Under the directive, consumers in every member state will be able to access some form of collective redress like the flight compensation and challenge to airlines’ unfair terms.

The ongoing pressure and open lines of communication with Ryanair from Test Achats with regards to staff strikes meant the consumer organization could intervene at an early stage and prevent problems later down the line.

The complexity and length of the OCU case against airlines’ labyrinth of unjustified and unreasonable terms demonstrates exactly why consumer groups are in a strong position to launch collective proceedings. Individual consumers would not have experienced all of the harms or have the resources to bring the case, but together the illegal contract terms had a detrimental impact on millions of travellers.  

Of course, the ideal would be for more consistency in enforcement action across borders. An industry like travel is an obvious place for cross border, collective redress. An industry whose purpose is to move consumers across borders should ensure that people are treated fairly and compensated fully no matter what their home country is. This could be particularly pertinent in the case of an industry like airlines which involve large numbers of consumers from different countries.

In a similar way, multinational firms, be they tech firms or global auto giants, need to treat customers who experienced the same harm as a result of their actions in the same way.  Euroconsumers has long been a champion of cross border collective enforcement and is showing that standing up to poor practice gets results.

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