THE night before Marcos Boyington, his sister Isamira and a friend were scheduled to fly to Brazil for a family visit, “everything went crazy,” he said.
They learned that Brazil’s Varig airline had canceled its nonstop LAX-Sao Paulo flight, along with scores of other departures, after it defaulted on leases and creditors seized its planes.
“We all started freaking out,” said Boyington, a software engineer who lives in Culver City.
The three finally made it to Sao Paulo, thanks to Air Canada, which honored their tickets. But on his trip to Brazil and back, Boyington endured several days of delays, missed connections and a harrowing Varig flight on which, he said, the cockpit window blew out. (A Varig spokesman disputed the last incident.)
Boyington’s June 23-to-July 13 journey shows the havoc that a troubled foreign carrier can wreak when it cancels flights or stops flying entirely. (Varig is now being reorganized under new investors.)
When you’re holding a ticket on such a carrier, as opposed to a U.S. airline, you may have surprisingly few legal rights. But you can avoid or ease the pain by researching the foreign carrier before you book it, paying with a credit card and being proactive about pursuing alternatives.
Here’s more about your options.
* Know your legal rights: “There’s a very tangled web out there,” said Anthony Concil, spokesman for the International Air Transport Assn., a Geneva-based trade association of major airlines. “I wish there was a simple answer.”
In the U.S., a law commonly known as Section 145 requires that other carriers, if they have space, honor tickets of passengers bumped by an insolvent U.S. carrier. But the law doesn’t apply to foreign airlines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. (California’s Seller of Travel Act, which compensates consumers when certain tour or travel agents default, doesn’t cover airlines.)
The European Union lacks a law similar to Section 145, although it is studying the issue. But the EU, unlike the U.S., does require airlines to compensate customers for delays and cancellations in many situations, so it may be of help. For details, visit ec.europa.eu/transport/air/rules/rights/info_en.htm.
Like the U.S., individual nations in Europe and elsewhere may offer some legal protection to customers of insolvent airlines, but international aviation organizations could not provide a list. Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority, for instance, provides limited rights; for details, visit www.caa.co.uk, and click on “Consumer Protection.”
Otherwise, experts say, passenger rights are largely governed by the Warsaw Convention, an international agreement last updated in 1999. The convention’s Article 19 says that, in general, an airline is “liable for damage occasioned by delay” unless it can prove it took “all measures that could reasonably be required” to avoid the problem. It does not address insolvency.
Article 19 doesn’t define “damage,” but courts have often limited it to economic loss. In a recent ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit cited prior decisions that excluded “mental anguish damages” from the Warsaw Convention
* Research the carrier: The only sure way to avoid being stranded by a financially weak airline, of course, is not to buy a ticket from it.
Unfortunately, a troubled airline may give few clues to its distress. Many operate smoothly under bankruptcy protection for months or years, then successfully reorganize -- or don’t.
Until about a year ago, when it filed for bankruptcy, Varig was South America’s largest airline, with a respected history. After filing, it continued to fly.
By the time customer Boyington learned of Varig’s problems, he thought it was too late to re-book.
Varig’s woes had been documented for months in news reports and passenger reviews on websites such as www.airlinequality.com. Another hint: Travel insurance companies, as early as June 2005, began refusing to cover Varig for financial default. Look for lists of covered or excluded suppliers on insurers’ websites.
* Buy travel insurance -- if you can get it: The problem, described above, is that insurers often won’t cover airlines whose finances are shaky. Ask when you buy a policy whether your airline is covered for “bankruptcy” or “financial default” or “cessation of services.” The best policies will reimburse you for an unused ticket and related expenses even if a carrier doesn’t file a bankruptcy petition; some just stop flying.
* Pay with a credit card: This is a smart strategy for any travel purchase. Under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act, credit card companies must offer a refund if you don’t get the service or product you paid for.
Generally, you must dispute the charge in writing within 60 days.
* Be a smart negotiator: However money and legalities are resolved later, the most urgent need for stranded fliers is to get where they’re going.
The travel agent who handled your ticket can help you find another flight. But if you booked directly with the airline or can’t reach your travel agent -- not uncommon in different time zones -- you’re going to have to sort it out on your own.
“It’s routine for people in this situation to get wildly conflicting information,” said Edward Hasbrouck, author of “The Practical Nomad” series on around-the-world travel.
Boyington, for instance, said a Varig agent in Manaus, Brazil, told him United, a partner in the Star Alliance, would take over Varig’s canceled Sao Paulo-LAX route. That was wrong; Boyington was stranded two nights in Sao Paulo waiting for alternate flights. (He eventually flew to LAX by way of New York.)
The good news, Hasbrouck said, is that other airlines are “pretty good” about helping out when a carrier falters. Although it didn’t take over the Varig route, for instance, United honored Boyington’s revised ticket, flying him from New York to LAX at no extra cost, he said.
To help harried gate agents, Hasbrouck suggested, take charge of booking alternate flights. Get on the Internet or phone and look for other carriers that can get you to your destination. Then tell the troubled airline’s agents which flight you want and ask them to certify that your ticket can be used on another airline.
“Make it easy for them,” Hasbrouck said.
Boyington’s advice, learned the hard way, was this: “Don’t fly on a bankrupt airline.”
Easier said than done these days.
Jane Engle welcomes comments but can’t respond individually to letters and calls. Write to Travel Insider, L.A. Times, 202 W. 1st St., L.A., CA 90012, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.