Flight delays: What rights do you have to compensation if your plane is late?

Ground control: Passengers whose flights are disrupted have extensive rights (Simon Calder)
Ground control: Passengers whose flights are disrupted have extensive rights (Simon Calder)

In 2023, the average flight from the UK departed almost 21 minutes late, according to an analysis of the latest Civil Aviation Authority figures.

The typical Wizz Air flight from the UK left 32 minutes behind schedule. Turkish Airlines recorded a delay of 29 minutes, with Tui on 28 minutes.

Most UK and Irish airlines were mid-table in terms of the number of minutes each flight was delayed on average, including:

  • British Airways – 22

  • EasyJet – 21

  • Ryanair – 20

  • Jet2 – 18

The stand-out “success” among the major British carriers was Virgin Atlantic, but even its average departure was 14 minutes late.

Many flights, of course, depart on schedule. A few leave early (though this does count towards improving their delay average). But some delays extend for hours.

You may be entitled to care while you wait – and, if the airline is responsible for the late arrival, compensation. But your rights depend on:

  • Length of wait

  • Where your flight begins

  • Airline

For all 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. After Brexit, the UK copied and pasted the same regulations into British law as UK261.

The rules were devised to require airlines to do the right thing for their passengers. They specify the care and compensation you can expect when your plane is heavily delayed.

These rules also apply for flights on EU and British airlines departing from outside the European Union and the UK.

A delay of hours rather than minutes could trigger the obligation for an airline to provide a hotel room, meals as appropriate and hundreds of pounds in cash.

Conversely, when flying on a non-EU/UK carrier from outside Europe. you may just have to put a dismal aviation episode down to expensive experience, and see if your travel insurer can help.

These are the key questions and answers.

In the UK and Europe, what can I expect if my flight is delayed?

For delays of under two hours you have no rights (unless a short delay in the UK triggers a missed connection and much later arrival at your final ticketed destination – see below).

For longer delays, the airline should provide refreshments as appropriate after a specified length of time. This applies regardless of the cause of the delay.

The time at which the duty of care kicks in depends on the distance you are flying:

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

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

  • Longer trips: four hours.

Note that if the airline believes providing the care would further delay the flight, it need not deliver.

If the delay extends overnight, the airline is obliged to find and pay for a hotel room. In practice, carriers often say, “too difficult”, and invite the passenger to book their own and reclaim later.

While this practice does not comply fully with the rules, aviation authorities tend to turn a blind eye to it.

The delay is so long it’s no longer worth going. Can I cancel and get my money back?

Only after five hours, though in practice some airlines may offer a refund if you can demonstrate your trip has been rendered pointless by a shorter delay.

How do I qualify for a cash payout?

If you are flying from a UK/EU airport or on a British/ European airline and are delayed in arrival by at least three hours, the presumption is that you are owed hundreds of pounds in compensation.

The payment depends on distance:

  • 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, eg Birmingham-Dubai: £520 or €600. If a long-haul arrival delay is between three and four hours, the compensation is halved.

The only way the airline can avoid paying out is by demonstrating “extraordinary circumstances” were responsible.

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. In other words: if a mechanical failure caused the delay, you are due compensation. A judge ruled such issues are “inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier”.

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:

Compensation must be paid by bank transfer (or cheque), 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?

One 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. One such firm is 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).

My flight from an airport outside the UK or EU is heavily delayed. What am I entitled to?

If you are booked on a UK or EU airline you have full rights as above. On any other airline, you have none – though in practice a reputable airline will provide meals and accommodation as appropriate.

Some travel insurance policies will help meet expenses that cannot be claimed back elsewhere, and may pay a modest amount of flight delay compensation.

My flight was an hour late departing, but I missed a tight connection

If you arrive at your final ticketed destination three hours or more late, you are still in line for compensation – as long as the cause was down to the airline.

For example, in 2018 I flew on British Airways from Heathrow to Moscow for an onward connection to Volgograd on the Russian airline S7. The plane was an hour late leaving London because of overrunning engineering work. I missed the connection in Moscow and arrived five hours behind schedule at Volgograd.

BA paid delay compensation without a fuss; the issue of meals was easily solved because S7 sent me to the business lounge to wait.

It is notable that in the CAA delay figures for 2023, almost all the airlines that are largely feeding “hub” airports did better than the average: Air France, Emirates, KLM, Lufthansa and Qatar Airways all outplayed easyJet and Ryanair in getting planes away on time.

They have a strong incentive for punctuality, with connections sometimes less than an hour and the penalty for messing up so high.

Turkish Airlines is unique among the big network carriers with an average delay of 29 minutes, which must wreck a significant number of transfers

For more travel news and advice listen to Simon Calder’s podcast.