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Iberia Airlines - No Customer Service, Public Health Violation

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I had not flown Iberia for a long time due to previous problems with them. After a new nightmare, I never will again. I promised them I would publish my experience in travel/consumer forums, so here it is.

While traveling in Spain, I became ill with chicken pox and was forbidden to fly by doctors at a Barcelona Hospital, until I was no longer contagious. This did not happen before my scheduled return date. At first, Iberia refused to change my ticket without $300 in service/handling charges. But the real problem was I could not leave the return open, so if at the new date I still did not have clearance, I would have to pay the charges again.

Further calls got me an agent that said the change could be made if I faxed certification from the hospital to the airline's Medical Service immediately. I went to the hospital (the visit cost 65€), and sent the fax (I had to go to a public fax service although I was still contagious). THEN I was told the Medical Service did not work on weekends, and I needed to wait until Monday (my flight was on Monday). I called and called repeatedly, and no one would help. Each time I called, because I did not buy my ticket through Iberia's own web site, they made me use a toll number that charged €0.77 for calls from mobiles; I spent more than 40€ just on the service calls.

On Monday, the time of my flight went by without response from the Medical Service (agents kept telling me "not to worry"). That afternoon they told me the fax had been received/accepted... but they would not make the change; it had to be done by the web site (onetravel) where I purchased my ticket.

Onetravel (logically) said that, having already missed the flight, they could not do anything. Finally an Iberia agent "kindly" gave me a new reservation for Wednesday, for a charge of $433. The new reservation had a longer layover than my original one.

Aside from the HORRIBLE treatment (and Kafkian bureaucracy) to which I was subjected, the most egregious issue is that when I did travel, Iberia DID NOT ASK FOR CERTIFICATION THAT I WAS NO LONGER CONTAGIOUS (which I was carrying), despite their Medical Service having received a fax certifying that, four days earlier, I still was. Iberia will knowingly transport passengers with infectious diseases (which can be very dangerous for pregnant women and young children). In fact, by charging substantial fees for changes in such a circumstance, it ENCOURAGES passengers to hide any such disease and attempt to travel--they're certainly not going to check if this is going on!

When I complained to Iberia in writing, two agents successively answered that "each fare has conditions that the customer is responsible for knowing." However, my original ticket only stated that it was non-refundable. At Iberia's web site, clicking on "see conditions" ALWAYS gave me an error message. Clicking on "more conditions" only yielded a generic message stating that any changes are subject to handling charges, and that "IF this fare allows for changes, they have to be made for the same [or a higher] class of service initially reserved." There is no information on specific change penalties or medical emergencies.

I am in the process of researching consumer agencies and transportation boards to which I can appeal: a) for mediation in trying to get my money reimbursed (good luck to me!), and b) to report Iberia for a public health violation.

Should anyone here have specific suggestions as to agencies I can contact and procedures for complaints, I certainly welcome them.

However, I also mean this message as a cautionary tale. Travel Iberia at your own risk. There is no customer service to speak of. They do not care about the passenger. They do not care about passenger/crew safety. They just care about making a buck, and if you run into serious trouble you're on your own.

If anyone who reads this decides NOT to fly Iberia to/from Spain, *please* send them a note through their web site's customer service link, saying you chose a different airline after having heard the troubles experienced by the passenger who filed Claim C12071-1756548297. Only when they know their actions have real economic consequences for them will they start behaving differently.

Their tickets are not even cheap! I paid $1300 for a NYC>Madrid/BCN>NYC ticket.

Safe travels!

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    I am truly sorry for your bad experience and I hope that you are able to sort things out to your satisfaction. I know it can be frustrating.

    However, for future reference, you should consider buying trip insurance for your peace of mind.

  • Comment has been removed by Fodor's moderators

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    I too am sincerely sorry that you had such a difficult time. Falling ill when traveling is always unpleasant and problematic.

    However, Iberia is in the business of transporting passengers from place to place. That business does not include rescuing passengers when problems such as illness arise. If you purchased a non-refundable, non-changeable ticket, then you really must reasonably expect that you will be required to pay for another ticket if you can't travel on the original booking.

    This is why people purchase trip insurance. If you decide not to, and you purchase a non-refundable, non-changeable ticket, then you are gambling that everything will go as planned. You are free to do so, of course, but it's not very sensible to expect that the airline will then step forward and take care of your problem if something goes wrong.

    To top it all off, you purchased your ticket through a third-party online booking service, further complicating your situation. And the rest of your story is a red herring, in my opinion. I don't understand why you would purchase an expensive ticket through a third-party website without reading the booking conditions and knowing what you are getting for your $1300. Further, the responsibility to refrain from traveling until you were no longer contagious was yours.

    "However, I also mean this message as a cautionary tale. Travel Iberia at your own risk. There is no customer service to speak of. They do not care about the passenger. They do not care about passenger/crew safety. They just care about making a buck, and if you run into serious trouble you're on your own."

    I understand you are upset and need to vent, but really? Iberia is a business. Of course they care about passenger and crew safety. And of course they care about making their business profitable - if not, they wouldn't be in business for long. If you run into trouble, the help they can offer is limited by the conditions associated with the ticket you purchased. This is why people purchase trip insurance.

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    Non-refundable ticket = must buy travel insurance if you can't afford to 'eat' the loss. End of story.

    (But I doubt you will come back to see these comments. probably a one-time, hit-and-run poster.)

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    If you had spent any time reading on this forum, you would have understood that regular posters here have absolutely no sympathy for people who complain unless they are complaining about something that has also happened to them. However, they are right that travel insurance might have helped.

    Of couse you are right that Iberia is not a customer oriented airline. Once they have your money they seem to believe that they have completed their responsibilities when they accepted it.

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    To everyone who enjoys being swindled by airlines, I will simply point you to Department of Transportation Regulations normative 14CFR Part 382, "Nondiscrimination on the basis of disability in air travel," Section 382.51, "Communicable Diseases", states that if airlines know or suspect a passenger has such a disease, it must ask the passenger for certification of not being contagious and, without such certification, deny boarding. Regarding such denial of boarding, it states that: "If an action authorized under this paragraph results in the postponement of a passenger's travel, the carrier shall permit the passenger to travel at a later time (up to 90 days from the date of the postponed travel) at the fare that would have applied to the passenger's originally scheduled trip without penalty or at the passenger's discretion, provide a refund for any unused flights, including return flights." According to U. S. transportation law--to which it is my understanding all carriers flying to/from the U. S. are subject, Iberia committed a consumer violation. I have lawyer friends researching comparable legislation in the European Union. I have therefore filed a complaint with the New York Department of Consumer Protection, and will do so with Spanish agencies when I have all the information about European law.

    The same U. S. regulations, as well as the International Health Regulations of the World Health Organization (2005), require airlines to monitor the condition of passengers with known or suspected contagious diseases (which Iberia did not do). The International Civil Aviation Organization, of which Spain is a member state, has issued a report (available on its web site), recommending that states make airlines legally liable when they fail to do so, and when they transport passenger with communicable diseases. According to these, Iberia committed a public health violation. I have thus filed a complaint with the U. S. Department of Transportation, and will file one with appropriate European bodies as soon as I have all the pertinent information.

    I travel with travel life insurance and baggage insurance, and I carry ongoing medical insurance that covers me when abroad. I do not usually carry trip interruption insurance, because I travel so often that paying applicable fees when I want or need to change a trip is more reasonable for me than paying coverage for that every single time (I certainly do so when I decide to change a ticket). However, the particular circumstance of what happens when a passenger contracts a communicable disease of potentially great harm to people with compromised immune systems before travel is *different* from any *personal* circumstance in which an individual may be unable to travel due to illness. It is a matter of collective public health. U. S. law in particular considers it in a separate category from other types of schedule changes, which would come under individual airlines' fare regulations.

    I paid the money up front so as not to risk infecting other passengers. Many people would just go ahead and travel. An unborn fetus, a baby, or someone who has a cardiac problem might die as a result. Those of you who think this is strictly a matter of passengers' responsibility, go right ahead and fly Iberia. Those of you who want to purchase additional insurance for something that is guaranteed to you by law are also free to do so.

    I'm going to stick to airlines like, for example, United, which has a policy of reimbursing charges paid for travel changes due to serious illness. Or airlines like several others, which publish their medical change policies on their web sites.

    Thank you for your interest in this matter.

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    Like many people, I purchase tickets from web sites such as,, and others that show you a range of schedules on different airlines to choose from. Never before did this constitute forfeiture of service. By telling me they would make the change, and making me wait for the Medical Service until after my flight was gone, Iberia precluded me from taking this up separately with

    I reiterate that Iberia gives you (or at least gave me) only an error message where the fare conditions should be (which is beside the point, as this case is covered by international regulations applicable to ALL fares).

    I really am surprised that people in online travel forums have such an investment in protecting airlines' rights as opposed to customer rights. And that it is such a full-time activity for some, that they would deride a "brand new poster."

    I can only say: GEEZ.

    Thank you again for your interest in this matter.

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    Go United!

    "United will refund change fees and tickets in certain cases. All requests must be received before the expiration of your ticket and must be accompanied by proper documentation (see below). Once received, if applicable, a refund will be provided to the original form of payment minus a $50 USD processing fee*. This policy applies to the illness or death of the traveler, traveling companion, or immediate family members, as well as customers actively on jury duty at the time of planned travel.

    *Except where DOT 14 CFR Part 382 applies"

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    Here's what I don't understand about your complaint: Let's say Iberia is guilty of not asking you for documentation that you were healthy enough to travel. Wasn't it also your responsibility to provide that documentation? Why did you not volunteer the information? At check-in, simply say, "You should see a notation in my reservation about a health issue. Here's the documentation from the hospital that all is well and that I'm cleared to travel." It seems to me that you were complicit in this portion of the problem.

    Airlines generally waive change fees for a death in a passenger's immediate family, but not for illnesses. I'm not sure you would have had any better luck with United.

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    "Wasn't it also your responsibility to provide that documentation?" In short, no.

    Ethically, I shouldn't fly with chicken pox and I didn't. LEGALLY, in the U. S.: the law makes it the AIRLINE's responsibility to ASK for that documentation because, if they don't, people with dangerous diseases who want to go unnoticed will slip into planes. The law makes it the PASSENGER's responsibility to be ABLE to PRODUCE THAT DOCUMENTATION when asked for it, FOR THEIR OWN PROTECTION, at the risk of being denied boarding if they don't have it. Even in this later eventuality (the passenger being denied boarding), the requires that the airline permit the passenger to fly at a later date, within 90 days, for the same fare, and without additional penalties.

    That is why, in the United policy stated above, you see they will charge a $50 fee, UNLESS travel is delayed pursuant to this regulation. End of story.

    Whether or not I had taken it out and offered it (which I was not required to do) does not change the fact that Iberia Airlines violated U. S. law on a flight to New York by not living up to its legal (*and* ethical) responsibility. It was required to facilitate a ticket change, monitor the health of passengers going onboard, and not penalize the traveler in that situation. It complied with NONE of those things.

    What airlines try to get away with when they make their own policies is truly appalling. In the U. S., when those policies are in conflict with D.O.T. regulation, the latter rules. Sadly, it is still up to customers to seek redress through labyrinthine channels (more complicated with international airlines) when they are wronged, and many just desist--or just find it easier to rely on outside insurance.

    However, everyone knows how insurance works, and when passengers rely on outside insurance to protect them from things that are the airline's responsibility, they drive up premium costs for everybody. They also encourage airlines to act irresponsibly because they know they will never be accountable.

    I live up to my own ethical responsibility not to travel when I know I can infect, say, someone on chemo, who will be endangered by something like chicken pox. I'm damn well going to hold Iberia accountable for living up to ITS ethical AND legal responsibilities.

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    Chicken pox is a very common illness among children. But it is not a notifiable disease.
    As not classified as such, it could have even been illegal if the airline had stored this information according the EU Data Protection directive.

    On any flight with a few young kids on board you have a high risk that they have or had one of the typical diseases that you typically get as a kid and afterwards are immune against.

    In addition, I think you read the DOT regulation the wrong way. It is not phrased as an obligation for airlines to scan the medical status of their passengers but as a right for the passenger not to be denied boarding because of any communicable disease, which in fact would also be the common cold, or, if the airline insists that the passenger is not healthy enough to fly, they must provide free re-booking.

    Anyway, this is just guessing and jumping to conclusions, so I think you did the right thing to ask for legal guidance. It will be interesting to hear how your lawyer will handle this issue and what will be the outcome eventually.

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    Citing US law or policy is moot in this situation; the flight was originating in the EU and is therefore subject to EU law and regulations.

    I've looked over (admittedly, not comprehensively - that would take ages) some of the EU publications on illness and air travel, and can't find any area where Iberia violated EU regulations in your case. But maybe you (as the affected party) can do some research to see where they acted against EU standards and/or the contract of carriage. I feel bad for your situation, but don't see how Iberia behaved illegally or unethically.

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    Interesting response by Cowboy1968.

    Varicella is included in WHO lists of diseases of concern; although some documents refer only to "communicable diseases" generically. It is transmitted through direct contact or inhalation of particles from the fluid of lesions, both possibly magnified on a plane. It is a great risk to persons with weak or compromised immune systems. The doctor in Barcelona acted correctly in issuing me a prohibition to fly until cleared.

    You are right in observing that this particular article of the DOT normative is phrased as a right of the passenger not to be denied boarding for communicable disease (unless unable to provide certification of non-contagiousness), and states the limitations of any such denial. (It is interesting that it classifies "communicable diseases" as a disability--with all the implications of that term for the protection of the sufferer). Other sections of the DOT text, and other documents issued by various agencies speak to the obligation of the carrier to act proactively to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

    Although this particular case is complex, because it involves so many different normatives and more than one jurisdiction, the bottom line is pretty clear: *having* an official medical report of a contagious disease (provided by passenger under instructions from medical authority), Iberia did not act according to regulations to prevent possible spread of that disease, or to protect the passenger's right to non-discrimination.

    The ICAO's Facilitation Division has issued an suggestive report on airlines' legal responsibility. It deems it airlines' obligation "to conform to applicable international health regulations and the laws of the countries in which their aircraft land," and points out that "in selling an airline ticket for travel by air, an airline offers a composite service, not only to carry a passenger from point A to B, but also to ensure that transportation is accomplished in a safe and sanitary manner." The report considers that airlines have an obligation to act on the *presumption* of illness (i.e. when a passenger looks "sickly")--much more so, one would think, when they HAVE RECEIVED MEDICAL CERTIFICATION IN THEIR OFFICES of the existence of a communicable disease. Finally, it states that "airlines have to face certain legal issues themselves in terms of their conduct."

    Procedures direct one to start with the DOT complaint, so that has been filed. I'm not sure whether the New York State Consumer Protection Department, with which I also filed a complaint, will claim to have/not have jurisdiction over Iberia (it has offices in NY), but we'll see. They will direct me to the appropriate agency if they don't. I'm awaiting information on the European side of this, and will act according to what I receive. But I have indeed ascertained that foreign carriers flying into the U.S. are bound by U.S. regulation on those flights.

    I do not expect this to become an individual court case. But by filing official complaints with the appropriate security and consumer agencies, one can ensure that an airline's patterns of infringement are on record, and legal/governmental action can be taken at that level. Also, for a fine to be issued where it may appropriate. It would be nice to get my money back, but I'm not counting on that.

    Thanks for your input.

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    Interesting that you now obviously are doing extensive research on your issues of concern and have obstensibly become an expert of sorts. Curious that you didn't devote as much time and effort previous to your trip to unearthing the booking conditions.

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    "I do not usually carry trip interruption insurance, because I travel so often that paying applicable fees when I want or need to change a trip is more reasonable for me than paying coverage for that every single time (I certainly do so when I decide to change a ticket)."

    Do you know that annual coverage is available, ideal for someone who travels "so often"? Might be worth looking into if this happens often...

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    I have looked into trip interruption coverage; that's why I decided after considering the costs quoted to me times the number of times a year I travel vis-à-vis the frequency with which I have to change a ticket that it makes more sense to just pay for the occasional change if I want/need it. I carry other types of coverage. And while I am certainly going to look into other options, I object to relying on private insurance for things that are the airline's responsibility. The matter of my money is completely secondary to me; the horrendous ordeal I was subjected to while they assured me for 48 hours that YES, they WOULD make the change after I provided documentation to their Medical Service, is inexcusable. And I'm surprised no one in this forum really thinks it is at all a problem that an airline does not have a system in place to ensure that, if at all knowable/avoidable, it does not transport passengers with contagious diseases (as international regulations say it must).

    The bigger lesson here is (sadly) to stick to American companies easier to hold accountable through U.S. consumer agencies and government channels. Iberia knows perfectly that it's bound by applicable laws of the countries to which it flies (and in this case, travel originated/ended in the U.S., and the change was made via U.S. Iberia offices, and charged in dollars), but it also knows the bureaucratic difficulties and slow pace of claims procedures. Although it has a high record of BBB complaints, for example, it has never answered one. People generalize about Americans being litigious, but in the end courts are often the only effective recourse.

    The other great lesson--and here I was quite at fault--is to stick to companies with a good customer service record. I knew that Iberia's is legendarily nonexistent, but still decided to give them another try, because my preferred route on another airline no longer existed and previous problems I had with them were years ago. Learned the hard way, I am quite done with them, as their typical response to problems is one big and unapologetic OOPS. [On the way there, I traveled with a vegan friend who ordered the vegan meal option. This showed on their records, but guess what, no vegan meal available for her. OOPS].

    As to having done research previously, as I said, I was perfectly aware that changes involve penalties, and I am familiar with the general range of these charges. I didn't need to access Iberia's specific conditions to know this, which is great because they were INACCESSIBLE anyway (completely on purpose, I'm sure). In THIS CASE, the fare conditions are, however, a moot point, because the DOT's regulation applies to all fares.

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    Perhaps one reason why they so pressure customers to buy tickets through their own web site is because they thereby make the transaction occur in Spain, further hindering claims against them from other countries.

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    Also in case anyone is facing a similar situation, in looking at web sites and contracts of carriage of both U.S. and European Airlines, I have found that many have a clause stating that they will grant total or partial refunds or credits on nonrefundable fares, for passengers' inability to travel due to "force majeure." This is defined as "unusual and unforeseeable circumstances beyond your control, the consequences of which could not have been avoided even if all due care had been exercised." [Such as contracting contagious disease while traveling and being forbidden to fly by local medical authority, I'd say]. Haven't been able to find anything like that on Iberia.

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    If you allow a good deal of generalization, force majeure is a general principle that is part of many jurisdictions' trade or civil laws. I don't know the Spanish law, but given that trade, commerce and consumer laws have been harmonized in the European Union one can assume that it could have also applied here. It does not have to stated in the individual contracts to be applicable.
    It can also not be waived and is not superseded by contractual agreements, e.g. by agreeing on a non-refundable fare.

    Nevertheless, force majeure does not work the way you may think it does.
    When one party of a contract claims justifiable force majeure, the contract gets nullified at that point.

    In your case, that would have been that day your doctor in Spain gave you a "no fly order" for the day you planned to depart.
    Let's say you paid $1000 for the return ticket, and for the sake of the discussion, each leg of travel was worth $500.
    Force majeure would free the airline to deliver its service, and you would be reimbursed the costs for that leg, i.e. $500.

    In the very same moment, the airline would be off the hook to offer you anything, from assistance to re-book, as your contractual relationship had ended that day.
    You would have needed to get a one-way ticket back home on your own, from whatever airline you chose.

    Force majeure does not mean that the other party has an obligation to modify the contract according to your (new) needs, i.e. make the return leg flexible.

    It is a pretty strong tool to get out of a contract (when justifiable conditions exist), but you have to claim it at that moment you wish to nullify the contract, and you cannot claim it once goods/services had been delivered/used.

    And, as it is such a strong tool and also voids any compensation (e.g. for airline as they cannot sell your empty seat at short notice), you can expect the other party to dispute it and demand proof, e.g. that your illness had not been a pre-existing condition etc.

    Instead of going down that path (which, technically, you can not anymore), I would focus on that fax you sent to the medical service of Iberia before the weekend.
    While you cannot claim anything from talking to someone on the phone (a real pet peeve of myself.. the obsession of people to handle important matters thru the only communications channel that cannot be proven), let's assume that a free re-booking is part of the terms/contract once you sent proof to the medical service.
    There is no obligation to handle business matters outside working days and business hours. OTOH, if your information reached the medical service before scheduled departure (which was the case in your example), it does not matter how quickly or slow the medical service processed your fax.
    Hopefully, you kept a the confirmation page that your fax had actually been sent.

    What I would do (keep in mind that only your lawyer can give you legal advice that you should listen to!!):

    Dispute the $433 rebooking fee.
    The costs relating to your efforts to call the airline and sent the fax do not look re-imbursable to me.
    Send copy of that fax to medical services to Iberia and claim that you informed them in due time.

    Send same documentation to the Consumer Protection Authority in Catalunya as at least your rebooking fee should be seen as a transaction governed by the laws of Catalunya.
    The Consumer Protection Authority not just an equivalent to your BBB but has much stronger powers and each complaint sent to them thru the official (paper or e-) forms becomes a case.

    The respective form -- which is the electronic equivalent of the famous "reclamation book" each establishment doing business with consumers must have -- is only in Catalan, though.
    But any native or intermediate speaker of Castilian can understand it enough to fill it out. Which you should do in English (or Castilian if you have someone who can do it). The procedure itself is explained in "Spanish" on that website.

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    Thank you, Cowboy 1968, for your kind and sound advice, which I am definitely following.

    I started with U.S. agencies (not the BBB--useless--but the New York Dept. of Consumer Affairs, and the DOT). My stated sought resolution with the DCO is reimbursement of the $433 (since burning at the stake seemed an unreasonable request).

    My friends in Spain did suggest the Agència Catalana del Consum, and I'm moving on to it. I had problems with their web site the first time I accessed it, but am going back. I'm bilingual in English and Spanish, and have good knowledge of Catalan, so can manage the form.

    I also found on another travel forum a fairly similar case that someone experienced about three years ago. This person eventually got a refund by bypassing Iberia's online claims process (which forum participants highly berated) and writing directly to Corporate Headquarters, so I've gotten those addresses as well.

    I do have the fax documentation and will include it in any communications, thanks for the pointer.

    I'd never previously heard the term "force majeure" in relation to airlines, except as they apply it to limit their own liability toward stranded passengers. So I was indeed surprised to find it in so many contracts of carriage, as possibly benefiting the customer in overriding certain nonrefundable fare provisions. Different companies had varying policies, but mainly it's (as you say) cash refunds for applicable unused tickets, OR credit toward future travel. The latter would have been helpful to me, as when I first called them was I couldn't give a specific date by which I could be CERTAIN to have medical clearance. But I would have been happier with a refund I could apply to travel on another airline. By delaying the Medical Service's response until my flight had left, they forced me to rebook with *them* at their new conditions, or lose the entire cost of the ticket.

    I wrote the European Commission Air Transport division for clarification of applicable European law, because I take it if that clause (in such uniform language) appears in so many contracts of carriage it must be because there is SOME regulation analogous to that of the DOT in the U.S. (but searches on Spanish legal databases have not so far yielded it). I also asked Iberia for their Contract, which I'm sure they will provide to me in the slowest possible way. They don't publish it in full on their web site, just as online links to conditions from an already booked reservation are inoperable--consumer information is fiercely guarded!

    Thank you again.

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