By now, we have all read and seen the horror stories about the flight chaos taking place in Europe—massive lines at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and London’s Heathrow Airport, stories of missed, canceled, and delayed flights, and heaps of misplaced luggage.
But perhaps some flier frustration can be eased knowing that for flights to, from, and within Europe, travelers have an additional avenue for obtaining compensation in the case of a delay or cancellation—one they may not have realized was available to them.
The European Union’s consumer protection regulation, known as “Regulation EC No 261/2004,” is a sweeping legislation that applies to flights within Europe as well as to flights into and out of Europe that are operated by carriers licensed in an EU country. According to the regulation, which dates back to 2004, if a passenger is denied boarding, the flight is canceled, or a flight is delayed, that person is entitled to various levels of recompense.
Passengers can claim 250 euros (or US$264, based on current conversion rates) for flights up to 930 miles in distance; 400 euros (US$422) for flights between 930 and 2,175 miles; and 600 euros (US$633) for flights that are longer than 2,175 miles. For delayed flights, the delay must be two or more hours for flights up to 930 miles, three hours or more for flights between 930 and 2,175 miles, and at least four hours for flights longer than 2,175 miles in order for travelers to claim compensation.
If a flight is canceled by the airline, the airline must offer a choice between one of three options:
- Reimbursing you for your ticket and, if you are not in your original destination, a return flight to your departure airport as soon as possible (the refund should be received within seven days of the cancellation)
- Flying you to your final destination as soon as possible
- Flying you at a later date of your choosing, subject to seat availability
“As soon as you have chosen one of these three options, you no longer have rights in relation to the other two options. However, the airline carrier may still have to provide compensation,” an online explanation of the legislation states.
There are some conditions under which travelers will not be entitled to compensation, including if the airline informed travelers of a change or cancellation more than 14 days in advance; if the airline informed passengers of any change between 2 weeks and 7 days prior to departure and offered an alternative flight (that departs no more than 2 hours before the originally scheduled departure time and arrives less than 4 hours after the original arrival time); or if the airline informed passengers less than 7 days before the scheduled departure and offered an alternative flight that departs no more than 1 hour before the original scheduled time of departure and arrives at the final destination less than 2 hours after the original arrival time.
The EU considers air traffic management decisions, political instability, adverse weather, worker strikes, and security risks to be “extraordinary circumstances” that do not require the airlines to provide compensation. The COVID-19 pandemic is also considered an extraordinary circumstance.
Claims for compensation can be made directly through the carrier, such as through this form on the Air France website, or there are some intermediary companies, including AirHelp, Flightright, and SkyRefund, that will seek reimbursement on passengers’ behalf for a fee. Travelers can also reach out to the individual governments for the country where their airline is based to dispute any compensation issues that come up with the airline.
The EU rule can also come in handy for travelers who are involuntarily bumped from a flight, a scenario that does not automatically entitle passengers to compensation under U.S. Department of Transportation regulations. For instance, if a smaller plane is swapped in for a larger airplane for operational or safety reasons, if it is a charter flight, if an aircraft carries fewer than 30 passengers, or if it is an international flight to the United States from which the passenger is bumped, the DOT does not require compensation.
But according to EC No 261/2004, if there are not enough volunteers willing to change their seats to another flight and the carrier is forced to deny boarding to passengers against their will, then the carrier is required to compensate them.
This story originally appeared in December 2018, and was updated on June 21, 2022, to include current information.
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