Consumers who have booked a flight have significant rights and entitlements in the event that their travel plans are disrupted. EU legislation introduced in February 2005 outlines passengers’ rights and entitlements in relation to flight cancellations, delays and instances of denied boarding. This legislation applies to all passengers departing from airports within the EU and European Economic Area (EEA) – so this currently covers the 28 EU member states plus Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. In addition, it applies to passengers departing from “third countries” – i.e. countries that are not part of the EU or EEA – provided these flights arrive into airports situated in the EU/EEA and are operated by air carriers that are licensed within the EU/EEA. Here is a rundown of the care, assistance and compensation to which consumers who have booked flights may be entitled in certain circumstances.
How long must a flight be delayed before the air carrier is obliged to provide any assistance or compensation?
It is not uncommon for passengers to experience some short flight delays but once the delay exceeds certain time limits air carriers are obliged to provide information about your entitlements and a minimum level of care and assistance as you wait. Different time limits apply to different length flights:
- For flights of less than 1,500km (short haul flights), the delay must be more than two hours
- For flights within the EU of more than 1,500km and all other flights of between 1,500km and 3,500km, the delay must be more than three hours
- For all other flights, the delay must be greater than four hours
What care and assistance should an air carrier provide if the flight is delayed?
When a flight delay exceeds the above timeframes, the air carrier must provide care and assistance in the form of
- meals and refreshments as appropriate with regard to the waiting time
- hotel accommodation if an overnight stay becomes necessary, including transport between the airport and the hotel
- two free telephone calls, emails or faxes
What should I do if the air carrier is unable to provide this care and assistance?
If the air carrier is not able to provide these care and assistance provisions free of charge and you have to make your own arrangements, make sure to keep all relevant receipts as you will be entitled to be reimbursed for the expenses incurred.
What happens in the case of very long delays?
If the delay is five hours or more, regardless of the length of the journey, and you decide not to take the flight, you are entitled to a reimbursement of the full cost of your ticket. Once the refund is accepted, the air carrier does not have to provide any further care.
However, if you have already started your journey and the flight delay has caused you to miss a connecting flight, you will be entitled to a refund for the part of the journey not made as well as to a refund for the part of the journey already made. You will also have the right to a return flight to your original point of departure at no extra cost. This only applies to connecting flights – if the flights were booked separately or if they are “point-to-point” flights, they will be treated as separate contracts and a refund will only be made for the delayed flight. In this instance, you will not be entitled to a refund for the part of the journey already made or to a free return flight to your original point of departure.
If my flight is cancelled, what are my entitlements?
If your flight is cancelled, the air carrier must offer you a choice between the following options:
- a full refund of the cost of the unused flight ticket
- re-routing to your final destination under comparable transport conditions, either as close as possible to the original departure time or at a later date of your choice subject to availability of seats
If the air carrier offers to re-route you to a different airport in your destination city or region, it must pay for the cost of transporting you from the alternative airport to the original one or to another nearby destination agreed with you.
If the flight is cancelled on your arrival at the airport, passengers must be provided with information about their entitlements and care and assistance free of charge while waiting for the re-routed flight. As in the case of delayed flights, this care and assistance consists of meals and refreshments as appropriate, hotel accommodation where an overnight stay becomes necessary, transport between the hotel and airport, and two free telephone calls, emails or faxes.
Am I entitled to financial compensation for a cancelled flight?
Whether or not you will be entitled to financial compensation for a flight cancellation depends on how much notice you are given that the flight has been cancelled. If you are told more than two weeks before the flight, you are not entitled to compensation from your air carrier. If you are notified between seven days and two weeks before your flight and you were given re-routing that left no more than two hours before the original departure time and arrived no more than four hours after the original arrival time, you are not entitled to compensation from your air carrier. If you were given less than seven days’ notice, and the alternative flight left no more than one hour before the original departure time and arrived no more than two hours after the original arrival time, you are not entitled to compensation.
Outside these timeframes you may be entitled to financial compensation for a cancelled flight, with the distance of the flight determining the amount of compensation that may be due – with €250 payable for flights of 1,500km or less, €400 payable for flights of between 1,500km and 3,500 km, and €600 payable for flights of more than 3,500km. The amount of compensation payable may be reduced by 50% if the re-routing offered gets you to your final destination close to the original scheduled arrival time.
In addition, if the air carrier can prove that the flight cancellation was due to “extraordinary circumstances” and it could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken, no compensation is payable. Extraordinary circumstances include extreme weather conditions, security risks and air traffic control restrictions.
It can sometimes happen that a flight is overbooked. In this instance, the air carrier may ask for volunteers to take an alternative flight in exchange for benefits to be agreed, including financial compensation. If too few volunteers are forthcoming, the air carrier will deny boarding to some passengers against their will but must compensate them and offer certain assistance.
If I am denied boarding due to overbooking, what are my entitlements?
In this instance, your entitlements are the same as if your flight has been cancelled. The air carrier must offer you re-routing to your final destination or a refund for the part or parts of the journey not completed. If you choose the re-routing option, you are entitled to the same care and assistance provisions as apply if your flight has been cancelled or delayed. In addition, you are entitled to financial compensation, the amount of which again varies depending on the distance of flight – from €250 for flights of 1,500km or less to €600 for flights of more than 3,500km. The amount of compensation payable may be reduced by 50% if the re-routing offered gets you to your final destination close to the original scheduled arrival time.
Are there other reasons apart from overbooking that I may be denied boarding, and what would be my entitlements in such instances?
The above entitlements only apply if you are denied boarding against your will even though you arrived at the airport with a confirmed reservation, the required documentation to travel and enough time to complete check-in, security and boarding procedures. By booking a flight, you are entering a contract with the air carrier and you have certain responsibilities as well as rights. If you are denied boarding because you arrive too late to complete the check-in or boarding procedures or because you do not have valid documentation, such as the correct ID, you have no rights or entitlements as you are in breach of your contract. In addition, airline staff can deny boarding on health or security grounds if they believe you pose a danger to yourself or others – and you will not be entitled to compensation in this instance.
Making a complaint
How do I make a complaint if I feel the airline has not provided me with the assistance or compensation to which I am entitled?
If you have a complaint about a disrupted flight, first contact your air carrier to seek a resolution. If you feel that your entitlements to assistance or compensation have still not been met, you should submit a complaint to the appropriate national enforcement body. In Ireland, the Commission for Aviation Regulation is the enforcement body responsible for overseeing the rights and entitlements of air passengers and may be contacted in relation to complaints arising from flights departing from an Irish airport or those arriving at an Irish airport from outside the EU on an EU-licensed airline. If the complaint arises from a flight returning to Ireland from an EU airport, you should contact the national enforcement body in the EU state in which the airport is located. A list of national enforcement bodies may be obtained on the Commission for Aviation Regulation’s website, www.aviationreg.ie, and all complaints should include copies of your itinerary/e-ticket, receipts and any other relevant documentation.