Passenger compensation Q&A: What are your rights when a flight goes wrong?

The rules for cancellations, delays and overbooking are mightily tangled

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The Independent Travel

Your flight is delayed, cancelled or overbooked. What, if anything, does the airline owe you? This guide aims to help you understand when you are due care and compensation, and when you just have to put a dismal aviation episode down to experience.

Q) What does the law say?

Europe’s rules on passenger rights, known as EC261, are designed to oblige airlines to do the right thing by their passengers. They specify the care and compensation to which you are entitled when your plane is delayed or cancelled – or when you are denied boarding despite showing up on time. The regulations apply to all flights from a European airport, and on EU airlines anywhere in the world

The rules on the care airlines must provide in a delay are clear. Regardless of the cause, passengers are entitled to meals and, if necessary, accommodation until the flight departs.

The trigger point for care depends on the length of the journey. For short flights (up to 1,500km, for example London to Nice), it's two hours; mid-haul journeys (1,500 to 3,500km, e.g. Manchester-Malaga) three hours; and longer trips, four hours.

Reports received by the Independent Travel team suggest that some airline staff are misrepresenting the rules on care, telling passengers that they apply only if the airline (as opposed to strikes, weather, security alerts, etc) cause the delay or cancellation. If the airline fails to deliver care as stipulated, you should keep receipts for refreshments (not including alcohol) and accommodation in order to claim it back.

In addition, compensation on a fixed scale is due to passengers flying from a European Union airport, or on an EU airline anywhere in the world, whose flight is cancelled or arrives at least three hours late. It also applies to cases when a passenger is denied boarding involuntarily. But if the airline can successfully demonstrate that the delay was due to “extraordinary circumstances,” it need not pay compensation - though it is still obliged to provide the duty of care.

Q) Define “extraordinary circumstances”

The rules provide only a partial answer: "political instability, meteorological conditions incompatible with the operation of the flight concerned, security risks, unexpected flight safety shortcomings and strikes”. Court cases have gradually refined the concept of “extraordinary circumstances" to exclude technical problems, with a judge saying mechanical failure is "inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier”.

Q) How far back can I claim for a delayed flight?

That depends on the statute of limitations - six years for England and Wales, five years for Scotland. Several airlines have sought to impose a limit of two years, but successive court cases have rejected this limitation.

Q) What about cancellations?

Even if an airline gives you months of notice, the rules are clear about what the firm must offer when it cancels a flight you have paid for: the choice of a refund or alternative flight. If the airline that cancelled the flight does not have a reasonable alternative, then you are entitled to ask it to get a seat for you on a different carrier.

If a flight is cancelled at short notice (within a week or a fortnight, with slightly different rules on each), unless the airline can plead “extraordinary circumstances,” you may also be entitled to ompensation on the same scale as for delayed flights.

Q) And overbooking?

Some airlines overbook, i.e. sell more seats than there are available on the plane, knowing there are often a number of no-shows. Sometimes they guess wrong. The rules require them to offer inducements to passengers whose plans are flexible to travel later. But if the airline is unable or unwilling to find enough volunteers, and deny boarding, the affected passengers are eligible for compensation.

Q) How much is the compensation?

The amount of compensation varies according to the length of the flight. Under 1,500km, €250 (about £175); 1,500-3,500km, €400 (£280); over 3,500km, €600 (£425), but half as much for delays between three and four hours.

Q) How does the compensation get paid?

The payment must be made by cheque or bank transfer, except if the airline obtains the prior signed agreement of the passenger to pay with vouchers for future travel. For example, Monarch offers a 20 per cent uplift if you accept vouchers that are valid for a year; eligible passengers can choose between compensation in cash of €250 or €300-worth of flights.

Q) How do I claim?

In principle it's straightforward: if you have a case, you file a claim online with the airline. In theory they should then send you the money - or, with your written agreement, vouchers. But in practice the airlines will defend any claim that they feel is unjustified. Airlines are furious about these rules, which they characterise as “free money” for people who may have been held up for a few hours years ago. They say that many claims are frivolous, costing the airlines a fortune in compensation and administration.

You could pursue your claim through Money Claims Online, or in the case of foreign airlines through the European e-Justice Portal. Or you can go to a no-win, no-fee specialist, who will do the legwork. For example Bott & Co, which has made a speciality out of EC261 claims, will tackle the airline for you in return for 27 per cent of the payout, plus a flat fee of €25 - amounting typically to one-third of the money you're awarded.

Q) My airline is based abroad and won't respond to my claim. What can I do?

"If passengers are unhappy with the response from their airline," says the CAA, "they can refer to the relevant aviation body in the country their flight was due to depart." A list is here:

Q) I heard that new rules are on the way?

The original EC261 rules were poorly drafted, and subsequent court judgments have made them even more of a muddle. Many in aviation regard the levels of compensation as disproportionate, with the payout for a three-hour delay often higher than the cost of the ticket. They argue that the effect is to push up fares for everyone. Various amendments have been suggested, though none has yet been approved.