With millions of Britons set to fly abroad for a bank holiday break this weekend, airports are braced for their busiest days of the year so far, especially as most of the nation's schools are now on half-term. This weekend is also set to be the first big test of new rules introduced to protect travellers whose flights are delayed or cancelled.
Until February, passengers let down by their airlines had few rights, and no automatic entitlement at all to compensation. However, not all consumer groups are completely satisfied with the new regulations that were introduced three months ago by the European Union.
Frances Tuke, of the Association of British Travel Agents, says travellers have not been given enough information about their new rights. "Some of the posters the EU has put up in airports are even factually incorrect," she warns. "Passengers are being told they are entitled to more than is actually the case."
Tuke also points out that the EU itself is concerned that some member states have yet to fully implement the new rules. At a meeting held earlier this month, European Commission officials told several countries to do more to enforce travellers' rights.
However, Britain has done more than most EU members to make sure the new rules have been properly implemented. Emma Harrison, a campaigner at consumer group Which?, says travellers who know their rights should not be afraid to claim. "Now the law extends passengers' rights to compensation when an airline 'bumps' or seriously delays them, airlines won't be able to pull the wool over customers' eyes anymore," she says.
If your flight is cancelled and its replacement will arrive more than two hours late, you can ask for a full refund or an alternative ticket. You may also be able to claim compensation - the minimum payout is £170 for journeys of less than 930 miles, rising on a sliding scale to £415 for trips of more than 2,100 miles that are delayed by more than four hours.
However, there are exceptions. If an airline can show the delay was the result of "extraordinary circumstances that could not be avoided, even if all measures have been taken", it doesn't have to pay. These circumstances might include bad weather, airport strikes and security alerts, for example, but not mechanical breakdowns.
Similarly, if a flight is overbooked and you are bumped, the airline has to put you on another flight as soon as possible, or offer to refund your fare. You can also claim compensation - how much depends on how long you have to wait and the length of your journey. For more straightforward delays, travellers also have basic rights. For flights of up to 930 miles that are delayed by more than two hours, you should get meals and refreshments "in relation to waiting time" plus two free phone calls.
The same applies to three-hour delays on flights of 930-2,100 miles, and for four-hour delays on longer flights. On all flights delayed by more than five hours you're entitled to the same treatment, plus a full refund of your ticket if you choose not to fly. If delays go on overnight, you should get free accommodation, including transfers to and from the hotel.
To enforce your rights, complain immediately at the airport, ask airlines for a written summary of the rules whenever you are delayed, and make any claim for compensation in writing as soon as possible. If an airline rejects the claim you have made, you can ask the Air Transport Users Council (020 7240 6061, www.auc.org.uk) to intervene in the dispute. It has the power to take airlines to the Civil Aviation Authority, which can fine rule-breakers.
However, these are European Union rules. If you're flying with a non-EU airline, or not starting or finishing your journey at an EU airport, your rights are governed by the Montreal Convention. This offers very limited protection, warns a spokesman for the ATUC. "Many airlines will provide refreshments or overnight accommodation for passengers whose flights have been cancelled or are subject to a long delay," he says.
"But very few of them will voluntarily pay compensation in addition - any payment that an airline is prepared to make for a delay will, at the best, be reimbursement of expenses that it accepts were directly and necessarily incurred."Reuse content