If you are flying within the European Union (EU) and your flight is delayed by more than three hours, or gets cancelled altogether, EU law is on your side. Under EU rule 261/2004, you are entitled to up to €600 in compensation. Here’s what you need to know.
EU 261 was brought in in 2005 as a tool to stop airlines deliberately overbooking flights. At the time, overbooking was much more common in Europe than it is today, with passengers frequently turned away when seats were already filled.
Under this EU regulation, those flying from or within the EU, as well as some flights travelling to the EU (more on that later), can claim compensation for delays and cancellations to their flight.
However, it’s not entirely straightforward (nothing ever is), so it’s important to understand the rules, procedures and requirements if you plan on making a claim.
Your options and rights if your flight is delayed
If you find yourself stuck at the airport, you have the right to be treated fairly by your airline. You should be supplied with food and drink or vouchers to buy them if your flight is delayed more than two hours for short haul, three hours for medium haul or four hours for long haul. If the delay continues overnight, your airline should provide accommodation for you.
Moving forwards, if the delay exceeds five hours, you have the right to take a full refund including any additional legs of the journey. However, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to claim compensation as this depends on the time you arrive at your destination. If you never arrive, you probably can’t claim.
If ultimately the flight is cancelled entirely, you should be offered a seat on another flight. Alternatively, you can also take a full refund of your ticket cost. In this situation, you may still be able to claim compensation, but we’ll explain more about that later on.
In all cases, we recommend you keep all evidence in case you do decide to claim. Things like receipts for purchases, bills for phone calls and messages received from your airline will all aid your case if you do go on to make a claim.
What you need to know about claiming for delays
Under the EU rules, your airline must compensate you for delayed flights, but eligibility and compensation amounts depend on a number of factors. These include where you are flying from and to, the airline that is operating the flight as well as the duration of the delay itself. Here are some key facts to remember if you’re planning to seek compensation:
The flight must be ‘EU regulated’
Knowing if your flight is EU regulated will be simple in some cases. If you’re flying from London to Milan, for instance, it’s clearly going to be an EU regulated flight. However, if you’re flying to another continent, or perhaps flying into the EU from elsewhere, things can get a bit more complicated.
An EU regulated flight can be:
- A flight that departed from an EU airport, regardless of the airline
- A flight that is headed for the EU and the carrier is an EU airline
So, for example, a flight to the US departing from Heathrow which is severely delayed will be eligible for compensation regardless of whether it’s on a UK airline such as BA or Virgin, or a US airline like United or American Airlines.
Coming back, however, a flight landing in Heathrow late would need to be operated by an EU airline in order to be eligible for compensation. So your BA or Virgin flight would be eligible, but your AA or United one would not.
Under this ruling, EU airports include those who are not in EU nations, such as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Norway.
Where it gets a bit more complex is where you’re using a codeshare flight and are dealing with different operators. Maybe you booked JFK to Manchester via Heathrow, and the JFK to Heathrow is operated by American Airlines, while the Heathrow to Manchester is on BA.
In this situation, the CAA says that the courts would consider whether this is one flight or two, and also if the delay was caused in the UK or in the US. It’s a complex issue, and one which your claims court will need to decide.
The delay must be the fault of the airline
Compensation will only be payable if the airline was at fault. Things like understaffing or equipment failure all count as airline issues, but natural disasters such as hurricanes do not. The European Commission released a set of guidelines relating to flight delay compensation, but the issue of blame can still often be a grey area.
Instances where the airline is certainly at fault include: the crew turning up late; cancelling the flight because it was under booked; late submission of documentation; technical problems with the aircraft (if classed as a ‘routine’ wear and tear issue); and strikes by the airline’s own staff.
Times where it would not be classed as the airline’s fault include: political issues in the country of origin or at the destination; striking by people not employed by the airline; bad weather; natural disasters; and technical problems caused by ‘out of the ordinary’ events.
These rules are open to interpretation, and you can be sure that the airline will do whatever they can to avoid paying compensation. As such, if you’re unsure, make a claim and let the courts decide.
The delay must be three hours or more
Not only does your delay have to exceed three hours, it has to exceed three hours at the time you arrive at your destination. And believe us, it is possible for airlines to make up a good chunk of lost time on some flights.
Airlines often build in a bit of time to their schedules so that their on time performance is good. This means that you could, potentially, leave one airport three and a half hours late, but arrive just two hours and fifty minutes later than expected. In this situation, your compensation would not be payable.
The time your flight ‘arrives’ is defined by the European Court of Justice as the moment when the plane opens at least one of its doors. If you’re not sure what your exact arrival time was, there’s a handy tool at Bott&Co which might be helpful.
How long do you have to make a claim?
Actually, you have all the time in the world to make a claim. Well, not all of it, but a good bit of breathing room certainly.
In theory, you could claim back right now for a flight as long ago as 2005, when the regulations came into force. However, in the UK there is something called the ‘statute of limitations’ which means claims cannot go back further than six years. In Scotland this is five.
So, for most flights since 2013, you should be able to make a claim. You can always try for older cases than this, but it’s likely you’ll have a hard job winning this battle. As with many things in life, sooner is usually better.
How much could you get?
The amount payable depends on where you flew, how far the trip was and how long your delay was. Check the table below to find out more:
|Delayed by||Distance of flight||Compensation|
|3 hours or more||Under 1,500km||€250|
|Between 1,500 – 3,500km||€400|
|Over 3,500km between two EU airports||€400|
|3 – 4 hours||Over 3,500km between an EU and a non-EU airport||€300|
|4 hours or more||Over 3,500km between an EU and non-EU airport||€600|
If your claim for compensation is successful, don’t be fobbed off into accepting airline vouchers for your compensation. You are entitled to this payment in real money, usually paid via cheque.
What if your flight is cancelled?
The same rules apply to cancelled flights in terms of EU-regulated flights and the length of time you have to claim. However, while everyone is entitled to either a refund or a new flight, regardless of fault, not all passengers will be able to claim compensation.
In order to compensation to be paid for a cancelled flight, it must have been the fault of the airline. It also must have been cancelled within two weeks of the departure date. If you accept a refund, no compensation will be payable. However, if you accept an alternative flight which lands later than your expected arrival time, the same rules apply as they do with flight delays.
How to make a claim
There are a few ways to go about making a claim for compensation. There are numerous law firms out there who will happily take on your case, but they’ll expect a chunk of your settlement to be paid to them. Alternatively, the UK’s MoneySavingExpert has a free tool available to guide you through the claims process.
Of course, you can simply do it all by yourself; it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Here’s how to do it:
- Complain to the airline: Airlines will have their own procedures for claiming, with some offering online forms and others asking you to write in to them. Check what their process is and remember to say you want to claim under EU regulation 261/2004.
- Escalate it to the adjudicator: If the airline rejects your claim but you think you have a valid case, you can escalate your case to the relevant adjudicator. There’s a list of airlines operating within the EU and their ADR schemes here.
- Alternatively escalate it to the regulator: If the airline you have a claim against is not part of an ADR scheme, you’ll need to escalate it to the regulator. For flights leaving or arriving in the UK, the CAA are the regulator you need. For other situations, you’ll need to contact the regulator in the relevant EU arrival or departure country.
If your claim is still rejected, you have the option to take the case to small claims court. However, it’s important to weigh up the pros and cons of doing this over a couple of hundred euros.
Airlines will often do everything in their power to wriggle out of paying compensation. And it’s not surprising either; paying compensation to everyone on a typical narrowbody aircraft would cost an airline around €100,000, and on a widebody this could go up to €200,000 or more. That’s before you start on all the free food, drink and hotels.
However, if you think you have a valid claim, it is your right to seek payment for the inconvenience you’ve been caused. Let us know how you get on!