Delays are a part of travelling, especially when you are zipping across the globe from one climate to another on a plane. I’ve been pretty lucky that my delays in Europe have been minimal, and I’ve generally actually had better luck with punctuality on low cost carriers than full service airlines.
By biggest delay last year was on a British Airways flight to Oslo, operated by a leased Qatar Airways A320. They couldn’t attach the fuel hose at the original gate, and so had to tow it to the other side of the terminal, which took quite some time.
The novelty of flying a Qatar aircraft on a British Airways flight meant that I was so excited, I hardly noticed the delay.
But if you are on a flight leaving from or flying to Europe and it is delayed, there is a generous compensation scheme available to you under certain circumstances.
Flight Compensation Regulation 261/2004
This regulation, commonly referred to as ‘EU261,’ is a European law that provides compensation in the event of certain delays, or cancelled flights. It is designed to protect passengers and give them rights they may not have in other jurisdictions.
It was established by the European Parliament and Council of the European Union in 2004 (hence the /2004 reference) and remains in place 14 years later.
Its current expiry date is 31/12/9999!
To determine if EU261 applies to you, you must be:
- Travelling either from an European Union airport; or
- Travelling to a European Union airport on a European-based airline
And all three of the following must be true:
- Have a confirmed reservation
- Have checked in properly, and on time
- On a revenue or award ticket, which includes sale/mistake fares, but excludes staff duty travel and discounted staff stand-by tickets
For these reasons, Ethiopian Airlines’ fifth freedom route from Los Angeles to Dublin would not be eligible as while you would be travelling to a European Union airport, Ethiopian is not a European-based airline. The reverse would be eligible, as you’d be travelling from Europe.
United’s flight from Frankfurt to Newark would qualify as it departs from a European Union airport, even though United is not a European-based airline. But the reverse flight from Newark to Frankfurt would not.
In all circumstances, airlines have a duty of care to look after their passengers in the event of delays or cancellations, regardless of whether the delay was caused by extraordinary circumstances, or not. You are always entitled to adequate communication about a delay regardless of the length of the delay.
If you meet the elibility requirements above, your flight will fall into one of three flight bands:
- Short: Flights 0 – 1500 kms
- Medium: Flights 1500 – 3500 kms
- Long: Flights above 3500 kms
Compensation for Delays
If your flight is delayed by more than the following times:
- Short: 2 hours
- Medium: 3 hours
- Long: 4 hours
then you are entitled to refreshments, accommodation (see below) and the right to make two phone calls, faxes or emails, as well as adequate communication from the airline as mentioned above.
Be aware that the ‘refreshments’ are likely to be nothing more than a voucher for an airport cafe as the only requirement is that it is ‘in reasonable proportion to the waiting time’. Given how overpriced airport food is, it may only cover a cup of coffee or a muffin. If providing these refreshments would delay the flight even further, then airlines are not obliged to provide this.
Note that the delay is calculated as the time the aircraft doors are opened on arrival (versus the originally scheduled time the plane doors were due to open), not the time the plane touches down on the runway, or the time the plane takes off.
If the delay is more than five hours (regardless of flight length), passengers are entitled to seek a full refund and elect not to travel at all.
If your eligible flight is delayed overnight to the next day, you are also entitled to accommodation for this period. While it would a very clear case for accommodation if your flight was delayed from say, 9PM to 9AM the next day, if it was delayed from say, 9PM until 2AM, it’s unlikely passengers would be provided with accommodation. So much time would be taken organizing hotels, transporting groups back and forth, and checking everyone in and out of the hotel that they would barely have time to use it.
I have never heard of or seen an airline quickly and efficiently organise hotels for a plane load of people ever, even at their hub locations (it’s significantly worse at outstations).
I was booked on a Virgin America flight from New York to Los Angeles a few years back that was cancelled for mechanical reasons. They put up all passengers at a JFK airport hotel, and re-booked us on a flight the next day but it still took more than four hours from when the flight was cancelled until I walked into my hotel room, despite being one of the first to reach the service desk, and the airport hotel only being a five minute drive away.
On top of that, you’re potentially entitled to cash compensation in the event of a delay, as follows (we will talk more about this below):
- Short: €250
- Medium: €400
- Long: €600
This would be calculated based on the time you get to your final destination. For example, if you are flying British Airways from Paris to London to Hong Kong, and your first flight is delayed by an hour and that causes you to miss your second flight and be rebooked on a flight four or more hours later, you’d be entitled to €600 compensation.
Compensation for Cancellations
As mentioned above, EU261 compensation can get you cash in the event of a delay, and that also applies in the event of a cancellation. Similar to delays, if your eligible flight is cancelled, then you will be entitled to the following:
- Short: €250
- Medium: €400
- Long: €600
Unlike delay compensation and general duty of care, EU261 does not apply to ‘extraordinary circumstances’ beyond the airports’ control for compensation for cancellation compensation. There is no clearly defined list of what is and isn’t extraordinary but generally weather and air-traffic control delays, as well as strikes and political instability would be considered extraordinary, while mechanical problems within the airlines control would not be considered extraordinary, and EU261 would not apply.
While nobody wants a cancelled flight, I can see situations where I would be quite grateful to suffer this if I knew the above compensation applied. I think this is a really generous amount, considering that for a short flight you may have only paid €50.
Note that where your airline provides you with more than 14 days notice of the cancellation of your flight, EU261 compensation rights do not apply.
Claiming your compensation
This is the (somewhat) difficult part.
As you might imagine, European airlines especially will do every single thing they can to get out of paying compensation. I’m willing to bet most travellers don’t even know about this, so even on an eligible cancelled flight I’d think less than 50% of passengers would claim. There are independent companies that will organise the claim for you on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis, and naturally take a big cut of the payout.
Unless you don’t have the time or energy to file your own claim I would avoid using one of these companies.
Each airline will have its own way of accepting and processing claims. Most European airlines I checked (such as Lufthansa, EasyJet and Vueling, for example) have a dedicated EU261 page setting out the compensation policy and online claim form where you submit your flights and reservation details. I’d recommend googling ‘EU261 claim’ and your airline (i.e. ‘Turkish EU261’) to find the right page.
Of course, hold onto your boarding pass (if it’s a printed version) and your booking reference number. You will have to do most of the work to claim, but if you are eligible most airlines should not refuse, especially where they advertise your rights on their own website.
Don’t spent hours at a service desk at the airport trying to make a claim. By all means be proactive about being rebooked onto another flight, but the EU261 claim should be done at a later date when you have the time and patience to do it. There’s no benefit to filing it the day your flight is cancelled.
Compensation must be paid out in cash (i.e. a bank transfer) not as an airline credit.
I hope never to have to claim EU261 compensation, because I hope to continue my good run of no cancellations and minimal delays.
But it is certainly comforting know there are such generous consumer protections for eligible flights in Europe.
If you suffer from an eligible delay or cancellation I would definitely recommend seeking this compensation to which you are legally entitled. There are 97 pages of detailed further information on this topic (covering almost every possible circumstance) over at Flyertalk.
Have you ever claimed EU261 compensation?