Today: Know your rights when your flight is delayed, cancelled or overbooked.
The U.S. and the European Economic Community (EEC) have established some very specific rights for air travelers. Unfortunately, only few travelers are aware of their rights (including entitlement to financial compensation) and it is important to know them in case things go wrong, such as flight delays, flight cancellation, and overbookings that prevent you from boarding. The following is an overview of basic air-passenger rights in the U.S. and Europe.
The European Union (EU) is the only region in the world where passengers enjoy well-defined, basic rights when traveling by air, on condition that (1) they are departing from any airport situated in the EU, or (2) arriving in the EU with an EU carrier or one from Iceland, Norway or Switzerland. Passenger rights are protected by EU’s Regulation EC261.
1. Refund or alternative transport
If you are denied boarding or your flight is cancelled, overbooked or delayed by 5 hours or more, you are entitled to either:
- transport to your final destination using comparable alternative means, or
- having your ticket refunded and, where relevant, being returned free of charge to your initial departure point.
If you accept a refund, the airline does not have to provide any further onward travel or assistance.
Your airline must inform you about your rights and the reason for being denied boarding, or any cancellations or long delays (over 2 hours, although this may be up to 4 hours for flights in excess of 3500 Km).
2. Food and overnight stay at hotel
You may also be entitled to refreshments, meals, communications (such as a free phone call), and, if necessary, overnight stay, depending on the flight distance and length of delay.
3. Financial compensation
If you are denied boarding, your flight is cancelled or arrives more than 3 hours late on arrival at the final destination stated on your ticket, you may be entitled to compensation of €250 – 600, depending on the distance of the flight:
Within the EU
- 1,500 km or less: €250
- over 1,500 km: €400
Between EU airport and non-EU airport
- 1,500 km or less: €250
- 1,500 – 3,500 km: €400
- over 3,500 km: €600
On connecting flights, the distance is calculated to your final destination, not to some intermediate hub.
If the carrier offered you an alternative flight with a similar schedule, the compensation may be reduced by 50%.
With cancelled (or delayed) flights, you won’t receive compensation if:
- the cancellation (or delay) was due to extraordinary circumstances for example due to bad weather, or
- you were informed 2 weeks before the scheduled flight date, or
- you were offered an alternative for the same route with a similar schedule to the original one.
For cancellation due to extraordinary circumstances you may not have the right to compensation, the carrier must still offer you either:
- a ticket refund (in full or just the part you have not used)
- alternative transport to your final destination at the earliest opportunity or
- rebooking at a later date of your choice (subject to seat availability).
Even in extraordinary circumstances, airlines must provide assistance when necessary, while you are waiting for alternative transport.
4. How to get a refund or compensation
Submit an air passenger rights EU complaint form to your airline and make sure you keep a copy for yourself. If this doesn’t work, or you aren’t satisfied with the reply, you can complain to the national enforcement body in the EU country where the incident took place. Or, if the incident happened at an airport of departure outside the EU but involved an EU airline, you can send a complaint to the relevant national enforcement body in the EU country you were traveling to.
The US Department of Transportation (DOT) mandates certain air-travel rights, including passenger rights in cases of involuntary bumping or tarmac delays, but in case of a flight delay or cancellation, you will be at the mercy of your airline.
When an airline bumps you involuntarily from an oversold flight, it owes you compensation:
- Bumped + short delay: Bumped passengers are entitled to cash compensation equal to double the price of their tickets up to $650, if the airline is able to get them to their destination within a short period of time (i.e., within 1 to 2 hours of their originally scheduled arrival time for domestic flights and 1 to 4 hours of their originally scheduled arrival time for international flights).
- Bumped + long delay: Bumped passengers are currently entitled to four times the price of their tickets, up to $1,300, if they are delayed for a lengthy period of time (i.e., over two hours after their originally scheduled arrival time for domestic flights and over 4 hours after their originally scheduled arrival time for international flights).
Inflation adjustments are made to those compensation limits every two years. Importantly, these rules do not apply when an airline bumps a traveler for any reason other than overbooking—for example, as a result of a switch to a smaller plane, for weight-and-balance issues on planes that seat 30 to 60 passengers, or if a flight is delayed or canceled.
2. Tarmac delays
The DOT rules mandate that an airline may not keep you on a plane for more than three hours (on a domestic flight) or four hours (on an international flight), with exceptions allowed only for safety, security or air traffic control-related reasons. Carriers must also provide updates to passengers every 30 minutes, and ensure that passengers stuck on the tarmac are provided adequate food and water after two hours, as well as working lavatories and any necessary medical treatment.
3. Fight delays and cancellations
If, for any reason, your flight is canceled, substantially delayed or rescheduled, you have the right to reroute at no extra cost or to receive a full refund, even on a non-refundable ticket. Airline policies vary, however, about what constitutes a “substantial” delay or schedule change.
Federal rules require that domestic airlines and foreign carriers flying into the U.S. file “Customer Service Plans,” which describe what the airline promises to do in the case of a long list of circumstances, including delays, cancellations, and diversion events, among others. Contracts and service plans generally call for meal vouchers when a delay extends over a normal meal time and for hotel accommodations in the event of an overnight delay. But implementation varies by airline.
In the event of a delay, a few airlines say that they will transfer you to another airline if that carrier can get you to your destination earlier than your original flight. A few others say they “may” transfer you, but the decision is theirs, and still other airlines only offer a seat on their own next-available flight. Neither customer-service plans nor contracts of carriage call for specific compensation when an airline fails to meet its commitment.