A few years ago, Nicolas Michaelsen was headed to Seville, Spain. Typically that would be a good thing. Yet it soon became his personal nightmare. “I had a layover in Madrid,” he says. “But the connecting flight was cancelled and I was stuck until the next day. I went to the help desk to ask for accommodations and food vouchers, only to be turned down. Essentially they told me I’d have to sleep in the airport.” Several hours later, after Googling his rights and insisting someone abide by them, Michaelsen had a meal and hotel. After enduring more horrifying travel situations, he also had an idea: AirHelp.
“My partners and I thought, if we are experiencing this, there’s a good chance other passengers might be in the same situation,” says Michaelsen. He was correct. An estimated 26 million passengers are entitled to some kind of compensation annually for their travel woes. Of that number, a puny 2% actually fight for it. AirHelp, Michaelsen’s company that launched in May 2013, is looking to make that number much higher. It acts as an affordable online advocate for frustrated fliers, dedicated to informing travelers of their rights–and helping them get financial compensation when things go wrong.
For AirHelp, this advocacy takes two forms. “Our number one goal is to increase awareness of passengers’ rights,” says Michaelsen. In the U.S., if your flight is oversold, you could get up to 400% of a one-way fare up to $1300. If you are in Europe and delayed more than three hours, you could be entitled to $800. These are laws that the airlines are well aware of but, not surprisingly, they don’t do a lot to spread the news to passengers.
“Social media shifted the balance of power and gave consumers a voice and ability to call out companies that weren’t offering good customer service,” says Michaelsen. “We take this one step further by enabling consumers to actually assert their legally given rights. This has resulted in viral growth and a lot of sharing via word of mouth.” Aside from a blog on airline rights, the company website lists the European Union and U.S. passenger laws, a one-stop way to find out if there is financial compensation for your misery. There is also a mobile app so fliers stranded at an airport or on the runway don’t have to unpack their computer to research what to do next.
AirHelp’s second goal is to get money into people’s hands. “It’s a giant maze of sorting through links and documents in order to figure out what compensation you’re entitled. When you finally figure out how to submit claims, there is a good chance that your claim will get rejected, not to mention the likelihood of not even getting a response,” says Michaelsen, adding that the average process may take three months of research and effort. AirHelp has reduced this time to the three minutes it will take to fill out their online claim form. From there, one of AirHelp’s 35 full-time employees, based in eight countries including the U.S., takes over. “We will reach out to the airline, prepare all necessary documents, handle all communication with the airline, and make sure [our clients] get the compensation they are entitled to,” says Michaelsen.
Of the more than 50,000 claims they have filed so far, the average payout is $800. While anyone who has ever waited on hold to talk to an airline help desk could say that this kind of assistance is invaluable, AirHelp charges just 25% of whatever compensation is paid. It seems a small price to pay for peace of mind.