Which airline offers the best passenger rights for my flight to the US?


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The Independent Travel

Q. I am in the process of booking a return flight from London to San Francisco. The direct flight I have selected is run by United but I can also book the same one through the Lufthansa site. Is there any advantage, under the EU rules, for this flight if I book the Lufthansa option? Margaret Read, Stafford


A. Good question. Just to run through the European rules on passenger rights, known as EU261: every airline flying within or from Europe has a duty of care in the event of a delayed or cancelled flight from an EU airport. Cash compensation is also payable in some cases.

European carriers have an equal liability worldwide. But non-EU airlines have no such obligation for flights that start outside Europe. In the case of London-San Francisco, every airline has the same liability on the outbound flight. But inbound, passengers on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have stronger rights than those on the other non-stop airline, United. For example, in the event of severe weather delaying the flight from San Francisco, BA and Virgin are required to find accommodation and meals for passengers; United, being a US carrier, is not.

United sells flights through a range of "code-share" partners, including Lufthansa of Germany. So United's first non-stop of the day, UA900, is also known as LH9378. If you book a flight through Lufthansa, and get a ticket for an "LH" flight, it is reasonable to suppose that you would be covered by the EU scheme. But I am afraid that is not how it works. The deciding factor is the "metal" on which you are flying, ie the nationality of airline that is actually doing the flying. In this case, it is United.

So the short answer: your rights are the same whichever you choose. Unless Lufthansa is cheaper (which occasionally happens), I would book direct with United – so that, in the unlikely event that something goes wrong, you can deal direct with the operating airline.

For future trips, note that as airlines move closer together, they are increasingly selling each others' products. So a BA customer who books a London-New York trip with American Airlines happening to operate the inbound leg would not be covered for this sector.