At the end of my trip to Europe this summer, the arrival of my TAP flight from Portugal to the United States was delayed by almost four hours. Midway across the Atlantic Ocean the Captain announced we had "fuel problems" and we did a 180 and landed on a small island called Terceira (the very last one before a large stretch of open ocean). We were on the tarmac for three hours before we continued on our flight and landed safely at our destination.
Unlike in the United States, the European Union has some pretty serious rules about how long you can be delayed before you're owed compensation. They depend on the distance of your flight, what type of delay or cancellation, and the duration. You are eligible for compensation even if you are either coming from or going to a non-EU country, as long the other end of your trip is in an EU country you can make a claim.
You can use this helpful EU website to figure out how much compensation you're owed. In my case, the flight distance was over 3,500 km and my delay was over three hours, so I am entitled to 600EUR... so long as my flight is delay is not due to extraordinary circumstances.
That last line about extraordinary circumstances becomes important. Extraordinary circumstances include air traffic management decisions, political instability, adverse weather conditions, and security risks. Technical problems with the aircraft are not considered "extraordinary". However, how am I, as a passenger, supposed to know if a flight is delayed due to weather or technical problems?
A few years back I had a flight from Germany to the United States that was delayed by three hours. The staff working at the desk told us the cause was weather, but when I went through a third-party flight compensation website they found that the actual cause was technical problems and therefore I was owed money. That was a reputable airline (Lufthansa), so I would not be surprised if less reputable airline (for example, TAP Air Portugal) instructed its employees to say that the cause of the flight delay was something for which they wouldn't be required to compensate passengers.
The third-party website I used last time is called AirHelp. Their website is free up-front and super easy to use; all you have to do is input your flight details and they will do all the work to try to get you your compensation (even if you're not sure if you're owed any money). The catch, and the reason I didn't want to use them again, is that they take 35% of your compensation as their pay. I knew that myself and my traveling companion were owed 600EUR each, and didn't want to give up 210EUR twice to a company when I should be able to just get this money from the airline myself.
As it turns out, there's a reason why companies like AirHelp are so popular: TAP Airlines will do anything to get out of paying what you are due.
The first contact I made with TAP was the day after my flight landed. I used their Contact Us form to submit a complaint. I explained the situation and included all the necessary information (names, flight details, ticket numbers, delay duration) as well as the fact that we were owed 600EUR. I never received a response.
I waited two weeks and then followed up on the email thread asking for an update and again didn't hear back. I had read that they legally have six weeks to respond before you can take further legal action, so I waited more.
I waited another two weeks and submitted another complaint through the same Contact Us portal. This time I included the form that the EU website recommends using to submit your complaint.
I finally received a response two weeks later. However, I did not receive it because the email went to my gmail's spam box. I'm not going to give them the benefit of the doubt here, because I've never had a customer service email "accidentally" be sent to spam. Every other communication from TAP (flight itineraries and promotional information) came right to my inbox, but all of their responses to my complaint were caught my gmail's spam filter. I might be sounding pretty conspiracy-theory-y here, but I believe that they are crafting their emails in such a way that they expect them to be sent to spam.
I found an American customer support number for TAP and spent thirty minutes on the phone trying to sort out why I hadn't heard back. The customer support agent helpfully suggested I search my spam box (almost like she'd had this happen to other customers in the past) and I found their response from a day prior. TAP had determined that my flight was not eligible for compensation because it had only arrived 45 minutes late. I suggested she google the date and the flight number for herself and see that my flight was three hours and 49 minutes late.
After a lot more discussion with the customer service agent, we discovered that TAP had "misunderstood" my request and chosen to evaluate my initial flight to Europe (which was 45 mins late) for compensation rather than my return flight (which was 3 hours and 49 mins late). The agent suggested that perhaps I had made a mistake and written the wrong flight down, despite the fact that I have a receipt of everything I submitted to TAP in my inbox (or rather, my spam box) and can see that I submitted the correct flight number and date.
According to the agent, the only way to reopen the case is to respond to the email with a clarification. I did so, and again submitted the same EU forms and waited for a response.
A week later I received a response (again, in my spam box). They offered the following:
In their offer email they did not mention the fact that I was also requesting compensation for my traveling companion. I made it very clear that I expect a transfer to myself and to her (all of the documentation I submitted included her information). I'm curious to see if they will actually complete both transfers, or if I will need to continue this thread with customer service. I have a reminder set to check my spam box every week.
Good luck getting your compensation from TAP. Please enjoy this picture I took when we finally took off from Terceira Island after being stuck on the tarmac for several hours.