Air passenger compensation: What are your rights when a flight goes wrong?

Departing soon? Dusseldorf airport in Germany on a day when ground staff went on strike (Simon Calder)
Departing soon? Dusseldorf airport in Germany on a day when ground staff went on strike (Simon Calder)

Your flight is cancelled, overbooked or delayed: what, if anything, does the airline owe you?

The rules are tangled and depend on where your flight begins and the airline involved. Sometimes you may be entitled to a hotel room, all meals and hundreds of pounds in cash; in other circumstances you may just have to put a dismal aviation episode down to expensive experience, and see if your travel insurer can help.

To complicate matters further, some airlines do not have a great record about telling passengers about their rights or delivering the stipulated care and cash.

For flights from the UK and EU airports (as well as those in the wider EEA), European air passengers’ rights rules prevail. These were introduced in 2006 and are known as EC261. They were devised to require airlines to do the right thing for their passengers. They specify the care and compensation you can expect when you are denied boarding despite showing up on time, or when your plane is delayed or cancelled.

But from locations outside Europe, the obligations are more complex – with passengers on flights operated by EU airlines treated differently depending on their final destination.

This guide should make you aware of your entitlements, even if the airline fails to do so.

My flight from a UK or EU airport is cancelled. What am I due?

Whatever the cause of a cancellation, and regardless of the amount of notice that is given, you can insist upon replacement transport: the airline must get you to your destination as soon as possible if that is what you want. The UK Civil Aviation Authority says that means if a flight is available on the original day of travel, the passenger must be booked on it – even if it is on a rival carrier.

The passenger is entitled to “re-routing, under comparable transport conditions, to their final destination at the earliest opportunity”.

The term “re-routing” is unhelpful, since it implies finding a different route to the destination. On a link such as Manchester-Dublin or Barcelona-Gatwick, with around a dozen flights a day on multiple airlines, there may be no need to change the route.

If you are flown to a different arrival airport, the airline must also meet reasonable onward travel costs. If you are flown to Luton rather than Gatwick, you could claim the £38 train fare but not a £150 taxi (unless you are in a party of four).

On occasion a train (eg Eurostar from Amsterdam, Brussels or Paris to London) or even a rental car may be more appropriate.

You have two further options. The first is an alternative flight at a time to suit you in the future – though the cancelling airline can reasonably require you to travel on one of its services. The other is a full refund, including any return segment if it is on the same ticket.

The airline says it can’t deliver an alternative flight today

If the cancelling carrier does not carry out its duty, obliging you to make your own arrangements, then you can expect reasonable costs to be refunded.

That means booking the cheapest alternative ticket possible, staying in a budget hotel if there is one, etc. You must keep all your receipts, of course. If the alternative travel is expensive (eg only business class is available) you will need to be able to show evidence of that, perhaps with screenshots,

Do I get cash compensation?

You are due hundreds of pounds in compensation if the airline:

  • gives you less than 14 days’ notice of the cancellation and cannot find an alternative way to get you to your destination close to the original departure and arrival times, and

  • is responsible for the cancellation – ie it cannot plead “extraordinary circumstances” as causing the grounding of the flight.

The payment varies according to the length of the trip. There is also a slight variation depending on whether the flight starts in the UK or the EU. (After Brexit the UK retained largely identical legislation but with amounts in sterling, not euros).

  • Under 1,500km, for example London to Nice: £220 or €250

  • 1,500-3,500km, such as Manchester-Malaga: £350 or €400

  • Above 3,500km, e g Birmingham-Dubai: £520 or €600

If the airline can get you to your destination within two/three/four hours respectively of the expected time, the compensation is halved.

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”.

The same logic was applied by the Supreme Court in deciding that crew sickness was within the control of the airline – so if that is the reason given for a cancellation, the airline owes you cash.

Official strikes by the airline’s own staff are regarded as within the carrier’s control, but oddly “wildcat” walkouts not sanctioned by a trade union are not.

Crew sickness is a grey area, with no legal certainty.

Ryanair says: “Only a small number of claims will be eligible for compensation. Most delays/cancellations are out of Ryanair's control.”

How do I claim?

Each airline should enable you to fill out an online form, but these are sometimes difficult to track down. The pages for three leading airlines are here:

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, an airline might offer a 30 per cent uplift if you accept vouchers that are valid for a year – so a choice between £350 in cash or £455-worth of flights.

What if I have a justifiable claim but it is turned down?

You can go to a claims handler such as AirHelp, but be warned that the company will keep between 35 and 50 per cent of any payout (the higher amount if court action is involved).

Another course of action is alternative dispute resolution, but The Independent has serious reservations about some of the decisions of these arbiters.

Writing a Letter Before Action – warning that you will go to Money Claim Online if you do not get a positive response within two weeks – is worth trying, so long as you follow through. For a £350 claim the fee is £50, which is refunded if you win.

Since Brexit UK citizens no longer have access to the European Small Claims Procedure, so if you are chasing compensation on a flight originating in the EU it might be easiest to go through a claims handler.

My flight from an airport outside the UK or EU has been cancelled. What am I entitled to?

Your rights – or lack of them – are more complicated.

On a non-UK or EU airline, you have no rights. Some travel insurance policies will help meet expenses that cannot be claimed back elsewhere.

On a UK airline, the same rules apply as they would were you flying from a British airport. The UK government says it also applies on an EU airline such as Air France, Iberia, KLM or Lufthansa via their hubs to British airports. But to other non-EU destinations, there is no compensation.

If a KLM flight from Buenos Aires to Amsterdam is cancelled, anyone whose final destination is within the European Union has a right to care and potential compensation – but people booked to transfer in the Dutch capital to Morocco or Turkey have no rights.

My flight from a UK/EU airport is heavily delayed. What are my entitlements?

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.

  • Short flights (up to 1,500km): two hours

  • Mid-haul journeys (1,500 to 3,500km): three hours

  • Longer trips, four hours

Unless the airline can claim “extraordinary circumstances” you are also due compensation if the flight arrives and the first door on the plane is opened three hours or more behind schedule. Once again, the payment depends on distance:

  • Under 1,500km: £220 or €250

  • 1,500-3,500km: £350 or €400

  • Over 3,500km: £520 or €600, though these amounts are halved for delays of between three and four hours.

My flight from outside Europe to the UK is heavily delayed. What are my entitlements?

If you are booked on a UK or EU airline you have full rights as above. On any other airline, you have none.

My flight is overbooked. Is the practice legal?

Yes. Many airlines sell more tickets than there are seats available on the plane, knowing there are often a number of “no-shows”. There are good reasons why they are permitted to do this.

With a no-show rate of around 5 per cent on a typical flight, overbooking allows the airline to make more money and, they say, keep fares down. Planes fly fuller, which is good for the environment, and passengers who need to travel urgently are able to do so even if a particular departure is theoretically sold out.

Sometimes airlines’ predictions are wrong, and more people show up than there are seats available. The airline is entitled to select anyone it wants to be denied boarding. But for flights from UK or EU airports the airline must offer inducements such as money or travel vouchers to passengers to travel later – possibly on a different airline.

If there are insufficient volunteers, the airline that offloads a passenger must find a seat on the first available departure – with the same rules as for a cancellation. If the only ticket on the same day is in business class on another carrier, the offloading airline has to pay for it.

The airline must immediately compensate the offloaded passengers to the same amounts as due for a cancellation.

Some countries, in particular the US, have more generous payouts: on international flights from America the Department of Transportation stipulates four times the one-way fare to a maximum of $1,550 (£1,216) for passengers who are involuntarily offloaded and arrived over four hours behind schedule. But this does not apply if the cause is an aircraft change (eg downsizing from a Boeing 777 to a 787).