What Are Your Rights When Flights Are Delayed Or Cancelled?

Ryanair aeroplane

If your flight has been cancelled or delayed, if you are stuck on the tarmac or if you have been denied boarding for a flight which you have paid for and have a confirmed reservation, then under EU law you do have rights. Do you know what they are? This article gives you a full and detailed account of every right you have as a passenger and how to fight the airlines and claim for compensation.

From time to time things can go wrong with any airline at any airport, sudden weather changes causes delays, flights are late, they get overbooked, the wing develops a fault and suddenly drops off as everyone is boarding, okay that last one maybe not so much.

Sometimes it is the airline staff themselves that cause the problems, taking liberties with your personal preference not to get a beating, making up ridiculous rules about where dogs are allowed on the plane, or basically being allowed to get away with tin pot dictator behaviour because they think no one can challenge them.

But the fact remains that any experienced backpacker understands that things can go wrong from time to time  and accepts it as part of the journey for the most part.

The big problem is that this acceptance is being abused by airlines around the world.

The ethical issue.

For far too long now airlines have treated passengers with utter contempt, leaving them stranded and out of pocket when things go wrong.

Airlines frequently ignore passengers calls for assistance or offer help far below what they are normally required to do.

When flights are delayed or cancelled for whatever reason and passengers are stranded, delayed and inconvenienced,  airlines are content to leave passengers confused and ignorant of their rights and do not volunteer information unless they are pushed for it, to the point that it could be considered purposely misleading.

Airlines consistently flout FAA rules and even the law when it comes to looking after stranded or inconvenienced passengers, and continue to stick two fingers up to their customers knowing that they will rarely get called out on it and that they can get away with it. Most of the time.

Ryanair, probably one of the biggest culprits in treating passengers with contempt, recently backed down when the UK Civil Aviation Authority threatened legal action after the airline was caught blatantly lying to stranded customers after they mass cancelled an unprecedented number of flights. Not that this stopped them from continuing to treat customers with absolute disdain afterwards.

But Ryanair isn’t the only airline that does this. It is ingrained into the corporate culture of every airline to treat passengers with contempt, to treat them as less than human, to ignore them and lie to them when it comes to legitimate redress for late or delayed flights, cancelled plans or just simply failing to deliver what passengers have paid for and have a right to expect.

They do this because they know that 99.9% of the time they will get away with it, because there will be no punitive action from the CAA and that there is no real oversight of the industry, there is zero competition and because they take it for granted that if they lie to or ignore passengers enough, the vast majority will not have the knowledge or the will to fight for their rights when flights are delayed or cancelled.

That has to end.

And since their is no oversight or punitive action forthcoming from any government body, it is up to passengers to know their rights and fight for them!

United Airlines economy class travel criticism

What does the law say about your rights?

Unfortunately the rights you have do differ depending on where you are flying from and even sometimes from airline to airline.

The rules set by the Civil Aviation Authority apply to Europe and the UK, and are confusing at best and often inconsistently applied, but it is important to remember that there are rules and you do have rights.

Under the EU passenger rights legislation you have a lot of rights if your flight is to, from or within the European Union. This means:

  • Any flight departing from any EU airport, or
  • Any EU airline flight arriving at an EU airport.

You can find a full country list covered by the CAA here.

If these do not apply to you, for example if you fly anywhere outside the EU on a non EU flight, then your rights will depend on the small print of each individual airline.

For flights within the United States of America passengers are granted some rights under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations governed by the Federal Aviation Administration, or the FAA; or more widely the Montreal Convention for international flights.

These rights for US citizens aren’t as robust as they are in the EU, but they are still there and passengers are able to claim under them.

So what are your rights when flights are delayed or cancelled?

Under EU law you have a very specific set of rights when it comes to delays, cancellations or any other inconvenience that was the direct fault of the airline. If you aren’t covered by EU law you may still be entitled to assistance from the FAA in the US and have a reasonable expectation that the airlines should comply, you may just have to be more vocal about it and may be constrained more by the airlines specific rules and regulations.

Airport arrivals international travel

The right to information.

Passengers are entitled to general information relating to their flights in written form at the check in desk, on any kiosks at the airport and online, in as many languages as is available.

In the case of any denial of boarding, delay or cancellation of at least two hours or three hours for the time of arrival at their final destination, passengers are entitled to a full and complete explanation in written form and a full explanation of their rights and what compensation they are owed.

Also, when an airline gives partial or misleading information about passenger rights, either personally or in media advertisement form, they are potentially infringing not only CAA rules, but this may also count as an unfair or misleading business to consumer practice. Essentially they may be breaking the law. Take note, Ryanair.

The right to a care package on any delay over two hours.

For any delay longer than two hours you are entitled to a care package fully paid for and provided by the airline itself. This care package includes:

  • Food and drink.
  • Access to phone calls and emails.
  • Accommodation and any transport expense to and from that accommodation. (This can be denied by the airline if, and only if, the delay is expected to be fixed momentarily and getting you to and from a hotel will delay the flight even further, but the onus is on them to prove that).

You are entitled to all of these provisions in full in a care package. Many airlines will try and fob you off with a partial care package or vouchers that do not equate to the full cost. Do not let them get away with that.

Airlines are obliged by law in the EU to make sure they actively offer this assistance, and passengers should not be left stranded and having to sort things out for themselves.

You should also demand these provisions up front and immediately at the airport from airline staff themselves. You can of course as a last resort get everything yourself and claim back the expenses with receipts later, but this is a lot more difficult and takes a long time. The airlines will specifically drag their heels to discourage people from doing this, and they will probably try and claim that steak dinner you had was ‘unreasonable’; so it is always better to get provisions or the cash equivalent up front.

US passengers are a little more stuck when it comes to claiming this as a lot will depend on the airlines own policies.

Additional rights for delays up to three or more hours.

You are still entitled to a full care package as above, and additionally you may be entitled up to €600 compensation if the delay is the fault of the airline and dependent on the length or distance of the flight and how late you are getting to your destination.

Again if you are flying a non EU flight you may not be entitled to this and will have to fight the airline on their own terms and conditions.

If your flight is not delayed at the gate or cancelled, but is instead delayed on the tarmac, the same rights still apply. Airlines must provide adequate food and drink for any passengers stuck on the tarmac within the first two hours. If the delay reaches three hours planes must return to the gate and allow passengers off and give the full care package and information about claiming compensation.

Rights for delays longer than 5 hours.

If the flight is delayed for more than 5 hours for whatever reason you have two choices.

You can choose to not take the flight at all, in which case you will be entitled to:

  • A full refund for the full price of the flight.
  • A full refund for any further flights from the same airline you cannot take such as an onward or return flight.
  • A flight back to your departure point at the airlines expense if you are part way through your journey.
  • The full care package of access to calls and emails, food and drink, accommodation and transport if you are stranded overnight.

It is the airlines responsibility to organise all of this and you should let airline staff know as soon as possible if you decide not to fly.

If you do decide to take the flight whenever it leaves, then it is important to remember that the airline has a legal obligation to get you to your destination, but you will still be entitled to:

  • The full care package of access to calls and emails, food and drink, accommodation and transport if you are stranded overnight.
  • Compensation of up to €600 dependent on the distance and delay, if you are flying under the EU’s legal jurisdiction. US passengers are not entitled to further compensation.

Rights if your flight is cancelled.

As the Ryanair cancellation fiasco showed, airlines can and will cancel flights if they think it is in their best interests to do so, and they often rely on passenger ignorance of the law and their own rights in these circumstances. The truth is however quite simple.

Just as in the case of delays of five hours or more, you have the legal right to either:

  • a full refund – including other flights from the airline that you won’t use in the same booking such as onward or return flights.
  • OR a replacement flight to get you to your destination.
  • A full assistance package if the cancellation delays you for more than two hours.
  • And compensation of up to €600 if the cancellation delays you for more than two hours.

You are also entitled to get assistance from staff at the airport itself but staff will not always make this clear or obvious, you have to know your rights and demand them.

If the staff refuse or make things difficult make sure you get everything written down, including the name of the staff who told you to make your own arrangements and as much proof and details of any delay or cancellation as you can, including getting a full receipt, your boarding cards and even a note on your booking too, and then keep receipts for all out of pocket expenses to claim for it back later.

Airport layover

Your rights if you miss a connection due to a delayed flight.

If your missed connection is the airlines fault then they must re book you onto the next available flight to your destination. If the next flight is the next morning then you have a reasonable right to demand that they book you on another carrier at their expense, or if one is not available you have the right to a full care package including food, drink, access to phone calls and email, and accommodation and transport.

Your rights when you are denied boarding or ‘bumped’.

Denied boarding is perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of flying, and is done because Airlines count on the fact that there is a statistical probability that some passengers won’t show up for a flight, so they overbook it.

So in a cynical attempt to reduce costs, they essentially ride roughshod over the rights of passengers and put them in a position where there is a chance that they will be denied boarding on a flight they have legitimately booked and paid for.

Unfortunately despite the criticism and even the high profile outrage on the now infamous United Airlines incident and many others, this is still woefully legal. So what do you do when it happens to you?

Well you have two options, you can ‘volunteer’ to be bumped, or if you are one of the unlucky ones, the airline will just do it for you.

Volunteering is the better option provided that you have the time to do so. Long term travellers without a tight schedule can do pretty well here.

If you volunteer it is up to you and the airline to agree a sum of compensation. Remember, it is you who is being inconvenienced so make them pay and do not let them off lightly. Only you can decide how much your time and inconvenience is worth but vouchers and a few hundred quid should never cut it.

If you are chosen to be bumped against your will unfortunately – as is usual – the law is not really on your side, but you do have the right to all the compensation and assistance that you would get if your flight had been cancelled.

Unfortunately in this case the compensation you receive is fixed and will depend on the distance of your flight and the time you are delayed.

For short haul flights less than 1,500km

  • Less than two hours delay – €125
  • More than two hours delay – €250

For medium haul flights between 1,500 – 3,500 km

  • Less than three hours delay – €200
  • More than three hours delay – €400

For long haul flights over 3,500km

  • Less than four hours delay – €300
  • More than four hours delay – €600

This hardly seems fair for a practice that should frankly be illegal, but then again this is one more example of the airlines being allowed to have a monopoly and getting away with treating customers any way they choose.

You also have the choice of getting a full refund, or making the airline get you to your destination on the next available flight.

If you choose to fly on the next flight you are also entitled to the full care package as stated above.

What you won’t be covered for.

In the event of a delay, cancellation or denied boarding, you won’t be eligible for compensation for any onward arrangements you have covered, such as a pre booked hotel room at your destination for example. This is where travel insurance is essential.

Extraordinary circumstances. 

Anyone who has had to deal with delays or cancellations of their flight will have probably heard this phrase. Force majeure , and act of God. It is the one excuse that airlines trot out for every possible incident to try and wriggle out of it and avoid paying compensation. There are instances where extraordinary circumstances are applicable, but in the vast majority of cases that airlines try and get away with using it, they are not.

The law is subject to change on this, as it generally goes on a case by case basis and precedents change with every case, however the main categories of extraordinary circumstance include:

  • Terrorism or sabotage.
  • Political or civil unrest.
  • Medical emergencies.
  • Security risks and emergencies related to passenger safety.
  • Weather conditions.
  • Hidden manufacturing defects on the plane.

Fortunately this is one area where the EU has actually put it’s foot down a little bit (still not far enough in my opinion), and have issued guidelines on what airlines can now no longer say are extraordinary circumstances just to get out of paying compensation.

Bird strikes and mechanical faults (with the exception of hidden defects where planes are suddenly recalled by the manafacturer) are now no longer considered to be extraordinary circumstances, because although they may be unexpected at the time, the courts see them as incidents that can and should be expected within normal and routine operations within an airport and airlines should have procedures in place to deal with them effectively.

Airlines can now no longer use strike action as an excuse either. There is precedent now for airline strikes to be considered as something the airline can reasonably foresee, even for ‘wildcat’ strikes

Perhaps the biggest get out of jail free card for airlines is the weather, and the court and the CAA do view extreme weather conditions as extraordinary circumstances, but it also states that – as in any claim of extraordinary circumstance – the onus is on the airlines themselves to prove without a shadow of a doubt that they have taken any and every reasonable measure to operate the flights as normal. If they cannot, then compensation will still be due and regardless does not exempt them from their responsibility of care in other areas. Even in the case of natural disasters airlines are still now responsible for looking after passengers. The Icelandic volcanic eruption in 2010 nearly bankrupted a lot of airlines due to this requirement.

Egypt, Egypt Air, Egyptian tourism

How to claim compensation for delays or cancellations. 

Now I’m not saying that airlines make claiming as difficult as possible on purpose, but they do appear to make claiming as difficult as possible on purpose.

The first thing you should do is contact the airline directly via their website and inform them that you are claiming maximum compensation as a result of your delay or cancellation.

If your flight is covered by EU law you do have more back up in these circumstances, otherwise you are usually bound by the airlines own terms and conditions.

Depending on your circumstances you can claim for:

  • Reimbursement for care and assistance, in the case where you had to pay for food, transport or accommodation yourself (which the airline is obliged to pay for) as a direct result of the delay or cancellation, and/or:
  • compensation for the disruption itself. Unfortunately this compensation is capped and not nearly punitive enough, but at least it is something.

Making a strong case.

Airlines will have standard procedures for claims so this is your first and best bet. Usually you can email but occasionally (just to make it harder) they may require a written letter.

Whichever form it takes, get and keep copies of all correspondence. Emails are easy to get but also keep copies of any letters and proof of postage.

In the initial contact it is your duty to give the airlines as much information as you possibly can, this includes:

  • Your full name and details.
  • Full names and details of all other passengers flying with you.
  • Booking reference numbers.
  • Flight details, flight numbers, travel dates and departure and destination airports.
  • Details of the disruption itself, including where it happened and length of delay.
  • Names and details of any staff you spoke to at the time (you should remember to take these down at the time, and don’t feel shy about asking).
  • Copies (not originals) of all relevant receipts if you are claiming expenses.
  • Copies (not originals) of all tickets, boarding cards, luggage tags and booking confirmations.

In any initial correspondence you should also state that you are seeking compensation under EC Regulation 261/2004 in light of joined cases Jet2 vs Huzr and van der Lans vs KLM.

What if the airline ignores you or denies your claim?

Unfortunately in many cases the airline may deny your claim, or just flat out lie or even ignore you (see the recent CAA ruling over Ryanair for evidence of both of those).

In some circumstances naming and shaming on social media can work as well, just look at the string of ‘we are sorry this has happened’ tweets on any airlines Twitter feed, but you do have to be careful with this. Don’t vent, as much as you may be tempted to. Just state the facts, ask for help and inform them you will take things further.

If that happens you should first try an alternative dispute resolution service, and if you can’t do that then contact the Civil Aviation Authority’s Passenger Advice and Complaints Team if you are within the EU’s jurisdiction or the Aviation Consumer Protection Division (ACPD) in the US.

If that gets you nowhere you have up to 6 years to seek legal advice and make a claim that way.

Alternatively you can just go nuclear and use the legal option straight off the bat. There are a variety of legal services now that will go after the airlines and make the claim for you. They take a percentage off the top of what you claim from the airline but they can save you a lot of time and trouble too, so it is up to you if you think this is a fair compromise.

Fighting for your rights and doing the right thing.

When airlines fail their customers in whatever way, whether that is a simple delay, a cancelled flight or any inconvenience in any way, then it is my belief that they have the professional and ethical – if not always legal – responsibility to step up and not only give passengers what they are owed, but look after them as well. As a gesture of goodwill, of basic customer care and common decency.

Just saying ‘we are sorry, what can we do to help’ will go a long, long way. Just showing that they care for their customers and showing that even if they can’t make everything up to you at least they can try, they can make the effort, that they want to help when things go wrong.

If they did that people would be far more understanding when things do go wrong, and they would foster a lot more customer loyalty as a result.

But until they do start doing that, the onus is on each and every passenger to fight for their rights, to not only get what they are owed by the airline but to use every action they have at their disposal to keep hitting back at the increasing culture of contempt that they show to their customers.

Hitting the airlines where it hurts, in the pockets, is the only way they will ever change, so the more people who hit them with legal claims the better.

The bottom line is you do have rights, and you do have the moral high ground, and if airlines are unwilling to show any form of customer service or care, then you should use those rights to beat and punish them until they understand they cannot treat customers the way they do.

Because unless passengers start doing that more often, airlines will carry on treating customers with disdain and getting away with it.

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, freelance travel writer and founder of Bemused Backpacker. He is also a charge nurse by vocation with an interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine, but his real passion is travel. Since finding his wanderlust a decade ago in South East Asia, he has bounced from one end of the planet to another and has no intention of slowing down.

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Posted in Travel Advice
2 comments on “What Are Your Rights When Flights Are Delayed Or Cancelled?
  1. Dawn says:

    Excellent advice! Thanks so much for this.

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