Little-known EU passenger rights can mean big cash for Canadians on delayed flights

Canadians are eagerly waiting for Dec. 15, when — under Canada's new air passenger regulations — airlines must start doling out compensation for delayed and cancelled flights.

But, unbeknownst to many Canadians, passengers can actually get compensation right now if they're delayed on a flight departing from Europe, courtesy of European Union regulations. 

Isabel Freire of Toronto recently filed a claim for her ex-husband and two children after they were delayed for about three hours on a WestJet flight from London to Toronto. Last month, WestJet paid the three family members more than $2,500 total in compensation.

"I was pretty happy," said Freire. "Do your due diligence in terms of being aware of your rights," she advises.

Those EU rights will still be relevant when the Canadian rules for delayed flights take effect next month. That's because the EU regulations may cover a broader range of flight delays and, in some cases, net Canadians more cash. 

Which rules pay more?

The first phase of Canada's air passenger regulations took effect on July 15. Covering all flights to, from or within Canada, the rules provide for up to $2,400 in compensation for passengers bumped from overbooked flights.

On Dec. 15, more regulations will be added, including rules that large airlines — such as Air Canada, WestJet and Air Transat — must pay between $400 and $1,000 for applicable flights when passengers are delayed by three hours or more in reaching their final destination. The mandated amount for smaller airlines, such as Swoop, will range from $125 to $500.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters

For years, EU regulations have set out compensation rules which cover delays on flights within, to and from Europe. However, the rules exclude non-EU airlines travelling to the continent. That means passengers are covered when flying from Europe to Canada on a Canadian airline, but not from Canada to Europe. However, passengers are covered in both directions when flying on European airlines such as KLM or British Airways. 

Under the EU rules, passengers can collect between €250 and €600 ($366 and $880) when they're delayed by three hours or more in reaching their final destination. Typically, the longer the flight, the bigger the payout.

Passengers can choose which rules they want to apply to their case and that may require some research. 

In some cases, the EU rules are more lucrative compared to the Canadian rules and vice versa. For example, a passenger delayed by five hours when flying from London to Toronto would collect $400 under the new Canadian rules or $880 under EU regulations. But if the passenger was delayed for more than nine hours, the Canadian rules would net the highest payout: $1,000. 

What about mechanical problems?

In some cases, passengers may have a better chance of scoring compensation under the EU rules. The Canadian regulations state that airlines don't have to pay compensation for flights that are delayed due to uncontrollable factors such as bad weather, or mechanical problems discovered outside of routine maintenance checks. 

Air passenger rights expert Christian Nielsen said mechanical issues are a common reason for delays, so that rule will exclude many delayed flights from being applicable for compensation. 

"It's a huge caveat," said Nielsen, chief legal officer with AirHelp, a Berlin-based company that pursues compensation claims for passengers and charges a fee if it's successful. 

CBC

Nielsen said EU compensation rules also exclude flight delays caused by uncontrollable factors, however, they require airlines to pay up for delays caused by most mechanical issues.

"[Canadians] are better protected under EU law." 

But in order for Canadians to take advantage of those regulations, they need to know that they exist. 

"Your ability to file a claim requires that you know you have rights," said Nielsen. 

He said his company has served thousands of Canadian customers and they're often surprised when they receive compensation under EU rules.

"Some of them believe it's too good to be true."

Right to know

Freire of Toronto said her ex-husband had no idea that he and their two children were entitled to compensation after their flight from London to Toronto was delayed. Because she was aware, she filed a claim and WestJet paid out €600 per passenger. 

Freire said WestJet should have informed passengers on the delayed flight of their rights. 

"Companies have to be transparent and they have to respect their customers."

Alexander Klebe

According to the EU rules, airlines must post information about EU passengers rights both online and at check-in, and delayed passengers must receive a written notice detailing their rights to compensation.

WestJet told CBC News that it complies with the EU rules and, in the case of the delayed London to Toronto flight in question, information flyers were distributed at the check-in area.

Freire said her ex-husband checked in online and received no information about compensation. But she did say that when she filed her claim, collecting the cash was easy. 

"It's like they were expecting us."

Air Canada told CBC News that it complies with all EU rules for notifying passengers. Air Transat also said it follows the rules, but didn't indicate if it provides delayed passengers with written information about their rights.