Flight ticket remains valid in general
When booking a flight the ticket often coprises of several segments, either because it isn’t a non-stop flight (e.g. Vienna-Frankfurt, Frankfurt-London) or because you booked a return flight (Vienna-London-Vienna).
These segments are called flight coupons. Most airlines foresee in their terms and conditions that a passenger has to use the coupons in the given order, otherwise the rest of the ticket becomes void.
For many years discussions have been going on whether this is justified or not and there were court proceedings in some countries concerning this topic.
German High Court (BGH)
The BGH rendered a judgement against British Airways and Deutsche Lufthansa saying that an airline is not generally entitled to deny the boarding on a later segment if you did not use an earlier flight coupon.
However, a ticket combining several flight coupons is sometimes cheaper than a one-way ticket and prices vary depending on the date and the time of a flight.
If the de facto used flight would have cost more than the booking originally made, the airline can charge the passenger the price difference according to the BGH’s verdict.
When booking the in- and outbound flight separately each one-way-tickets would cost € 300,-, thus the whole route € 600,-.
When booking the in- and outbound segment as one flight (one ticket) it would only cost € 400,-.
Thus, if a passenger used just one direction the airline would be entitled to additionally charge € 100,-.
Relevant for the calculation shall be the price of the actually used ticket at the time of booking.
Is this fair?
Of course it is pleasing that tickets must not become void if the flight coupons were not used in the given order. However, having to pay the price difference toan e.g. one-way-ticket can be a high financial burden.
Consumers not being able to fly as planned still are penalized.
Every now and then it happens that consumers know about price differentials depending on the route, date and time of a flight. They deliberately book different cheap ticket combinations with the intention just to use some parts of it since this is cheaper than booking the flight coupons they really need.
This is called cross-ticketing. Such a circumvention of an airline’s pricing is forbidden and charging the difference to the price of the actually used coupons is justified.
Mainly, consumers not using flight coupons in the given order do not intend to avoid/bypass the pricing though. Usually, itinerary changes are caused by illness or business reasons.
Also the cancellation or delay of a feeder can cause the missing of an onward flight booked separately.
In these cases it seems unfair that a passenger has to suddenly pay more for the booked flight.
Austrian High Court (OGH)
Austrian consumer protection agencies filed claims against Austrian Airlines and Deutsche Lufthansa. In contrary to the German High Court the Austrian OGH said that a general charging of the price difference is not justified (court decisions ref.no.: 4 Ob 164/12i and 2 Ob 182/12x).
One has to distinguish whether a passenger was suddenly hindered to use the booked flight tickets as planned or if he deliberately wanted to trick the system (“cross-ticketing”). The interests of both parties, the airline as well as the passenger, have to be taken into account.
In case of cross-ticketing demanding a surcharge is a appropriate, legitimate instrument.
If changes of the itinerary were caused by other reasons one has to consider that for the airline no additional costs arise in case of a non-usage of a flight coupon. Normally, an air carrier even saves expenses.
Hence, neither a surcharge in any case of not using the flight coupons in the given order, nor a clause according to which only force majeure leads to an omission of the surcharge is justified according to the OGH.
Diverse High Court verdicts
To sum it up, the Austrian High Court is much stricter concerning the charge of the price difference between the booked flight and the actually used flight. For Lufthansa there are different rulings by the two courts. Thus, there is a special clause for Austrian passengers in Lufthansa’s terms and conditions.
No general EU-wide rule
The above mentioned decisions are legally binding just for the airlines that were parties to these court proceedings. Other European airlines can be confronted with the verdicts of the OGH and BGH but they are not bound by them.
Whenever you had to change your itinerary and are not sure about your legal rights, do not hesitate to contact us. Maybe there are new court decisions in other EU member states by then.
Currently it is uncertain whether there will be a common rule on this topic applicable within the EU in general.
Contact the airline upfront
As soon as you know that you will not be able to use the flight coupons in the given order please inform the airline in writing about the obstacle. We highly recommend that! Explain the reasons for not flying and attach evidence for the impediment.