Flights and your rights
A journey by plane can be complex.
From your home to your destination, there’s flying, catching your connections, ensuring that you and your baggage turn up at the same airport, and making sure your accommodation is in order.
There’s a lot that can go wrong. When it does, the stakes can be quite high; losing all your luggage on the first day of a week-long holiday isn’t something most people can afford to just shrug off.
So what can you do? Who should you approach? And what are your rights when your flight is delayed, your hotel has forgotten you exist, or your plane lands late and you miss your connection?
1: What if Your Plane Was Grounded By Fog, Strikes, Or Disaster?
Even now, bad weather can ground planes and turn day-long layovers into a stay of unknown duration.
Under EU law, if it happens on an EU airline, in an EU airport, or on a non-EU airline that took off from an EU airport, it’s definitely the airline’s responsibility.
If your flight is delayed by 2 hours or more in an EU airport, on an EU airline, or on any airline that took off from an EU airport, then it’s covered by EC Regulation 261/2004, and you’re entitled to a standard care package.
The standard care package for EU flights includes:
* A full refund within the week or rebooking onto the earliest alternative flight
* Two free phone calls or emails
* Free refreshments
* Free accommodation and free transport to and from it if you’re forced to spend the night waiting for another flight.
You’re entitled to this if your flight is on an EU airline, or taking off from an EU airport, and is delayed by more than 2 hours.
For specific help on delays, visit our handy guide which boils down the key points.
Am I Entitled to Compensation?
If you’re grounded by circumstances the airline can’t reasonably control - like fog - they don’t have to compensate you. It’s called ‘extraordinary circumstances.’
This holds true for strikes - because the airline doesn’t control the unions involved - as well as for natural disasters, unruly passengers, birds flying into an engine, and so on.
To qualify, the airline has to show that the cause of the problem was ‘unpredictable, unavoidable and external,’ according to EC Regulation 261/2004.
If it looks like there’s some wiggle room in there, you’re not wrong. Fog over Manchester airport? That’s external and unavoidable, all right, but who would say it’s not predictable?
There’s some background here which means things might change soon.
In 2013 an EasyJet passenger won £210 in compensation after her EasyJet plane was delayed by over 3 hours by bad weather over the airport.
So do the British courts think the weather is ‘extraordinary’ or not? At the moment, they officially don’t, because that ruling was in a County Court, so it set no legal precedent. But watch this space...
2: What if Your Flight Was Cancelled?
Your flight gets cancelled, often after successive delays, leaving you stranded.
It’s the airline’s problem.
If you’re landing in an EU airport and the airline is in the EU, or if you’re taking off from an EU airport regardless of the location of the airline, then your airline has to offer you the standard care package.
Some airlines will provide this as services; others will reimburse the costs and let you make your own arrangements.
If your flight isn’t part of a package holiday or trip, the other components of the trip are your problem.
If you’ve got a hotel room waiting for you at the other end, you’ve booked a hire car, there’s a cruise ship with your name on a cabin door, it’s your responsibility to sort it out.
If your flight is part of a package tour or holiday, though, it’s the tour operator’s responsibility under the ATOL scheme and they will cover costs, arrange alternative accommodation and make sure you get home OK.
ATOL (Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing) is administered by the Civil Aviation Authority and tasked with protecting passengers on package holidays.
If you’ve booked a package holiday that includes accommodation, transport, all-in, or anything else that isn’t just a flight, you should see an ATOL certificate from your travel company as soon as you handover any money, including a deposit.
Make sure you keep it: it both proves you have a right to make a claim under the scheme, and tells you how.
If your flight is outside the EU or on a non-EU airline, you’re not covered by EC Regulation 261/2004, which lay out these rights. Instead you’ll have to see what your airline is offering.
Cancellations and delays are covered by a standard EU compensation law.
EC Regulation 261/2004 says that if you’re taking off from an EU airport or you’re on an EU airline then you’re entitled to compensation if the airline couldn’t reasonably have foreseen the problem.
To avoid paying you compensation the airline has to show that the reason for the delay or cancellation was ‘unpredictable, unavoidable and external.’
If your flight is cancelled you’re entitled to the standard care package as well as either:
* A full refund, including any unused other flights on the same ticket and with the same airline: onward flights, return journeys, and so on. Or...
* A replacement flight to get you to your destination.
You also have a right to have the airline help you with costs if the cancellation delays you by 2 or more hours, and compensation if you’d be delayed by 2 or more hours by the replacement flight offered and you choose to accept it.
If you accept the replacement flight offered, you’re entitled to the standard care package as well as compensation according to a standard schedule.
The amount of money you’re entitled to depends on: when the flight was cancelled, the flight's distance and the departure and arrival times of the rescheduled trip.
If your flight was cancelled less than 7 days before departure the compensation schedule is:
Flights less than 1500k
Departure: at least 1 hour earlier than your booked flight or arrival: up to 2 hours later than your booked flight - €125 compensation.
Arrival at least 2 hours later than booked flight - €250.
1500km to 3500km
Departure at least 1 hour earlier than booked flight or arrival up to 3 hours later than booked flight - €200.
Arrival at least 3 hours later than booked flight - €400
Departure at least 1 hour earlier than your booked or arrival up to 4 hours later than your booked flight - €300
Arrival at least 4 hours later than your booked flight - €600.
And if your flight is cancelled between 7 and 14 days before takeoff:
Flights less than 1500k
Departure - from 2+ hours earlier than booked flight or arrival - up to 2 hours later than booked flight - €125.
Departure - from 2+ hours earlier than booked flight or arrival - 2+ hours later than booked flight - €250.
Arrival - 4+ hours later than booked flight - €250.
1500km to 3500km
Departure from 2+ hours earlier than booked flight or arival up to 3 hours later than booked flight - €200.
Departure from 2+ hours earlier than booked flight or rrival - 3 to 4 hours later than booked flight - €400.
Arrival 4+ hours later than booked flight - €400.
Departure from 2+ hours earlier than booked flight or arrival up to 4 hours later than booked flight - €300.
Arrival 4+ hours later than booked flight - €600.
How to claim compensation:
Claim directly with the airline or go through your insurer if your travel insurance covers cancellation.
3: Delays and missed connections
You missed your connecting flight - often because the flight to the connection was delayed at takeoff or landing.
Whose problem is it? That depends. The question is, did you check in on time?
If you checked in on time for the preceding flight, then your journey becomes the airline’s responsibility.
That’s only true if the delay is something that could reasonably be said to be the airline’s responsibility: simple delays caused by queues to land or busy runways come under this heading, and you’re entitled to compensation at a higher rate than the standard.
And the delay doesn’t need to be the standard three hours: you can be entitled to compensation if your initial flight was delayed by 30 minutes or more, and there’s no responsibility to present yourself to check-in 45 minutes before takeoff for your connecting flight; your ability to do so
is the responsibility of your airline.
If your flight is delayed by more than three hours, you’re usually entitled to between £90 and £420 in compensation.
It’s about when the plane lands, not when it takes off: take off early, land 4 hours late? You’re entitled to compensation. Take off 4 hours late, arrive 2 hours, 45 minutes late? You’re outside the 3-hour window and not entitled to compensation.
The same regulations covering cancellation cover delays and missed connections too.
The amount of compensation you’re entitled to varies according to the length of the delay.
Here’s how to work it out:
For flights delayed by 3 hours and less than 1500km in distance - £175.
Delays of 3 hours and 1500km to 3500km - £280.
Delays of 3 hours, more than 1500km and within the EU - £280.
Delays of 3-4 hours on flights more than 3500km, between an EU airport and a non-EU airport - £210.
Delays of 4+ hours on flights more than 3500km, between an EU airport and a non-EU airport - £420
If the flight is more than 5 hours late, you don’t have to board it, whoever is at fault. If you don’t take the flight the airline is legally required to give you:
* A full refund for the flight
* A full refund for any other flights with the same airline on the same ticket - onward flights and return journeys, for example
* A flight back to the airport you originally departed from if you’re midway through a journey
* Access to phone calls and emails
* Free accommodation with free transport if you’re delayed overnight
If you do take the flight you’re eligible for compensation at the top rate if the delay was the airline’s fault. But if it was caused by ‘extraordinary circumstances’ you won’t get compensation.
4: Missing Baggage
The original airline nightmare: you’re in Paris, your baggage is en route to Istanbul. Now what?
Tell the airline straight away. You want to make it as easy as possible for them to get your luggage to you if it shows up soon.
If it shows up within a couple of days it’s the airline’s responsibility to get it to you.
But you also want to make it as easy as possible to track the process later if you do need to seek compensation for lost luggage, and that’s easier if you alert the airline as soon as possible.
Most airlines will reimburse you for essentials while you wait for your baggage to arrive.
Obviously that’s fraught - your definition of essential might differ from theirs, or you might need things you don’t want to show the airline the receipt for. But they will typically cover essential toiletries, underwear and laundry costs if you’re away from home when your bags go missing.
The regulations that govern lost baggage are part of the Montreal Convention.
Your claim for compensation will be assessed in terms of damage, defined as damage or loss caused by delay of passengers, baggage or cargo, or damage caused by loss, destruction or damage to the baggage itself.
If your luggage has actually been lost, the rules are quite strict and they’re not set up to favour holidaymakers.
You’ll have to wait 21 days - longer than most holidays as well as the vast majority of business trips - to have your luggage declared lost.
Then you have 7 days to claim for compensation, and there’s an £800 cap on lost luggage compensation.
The only way to claim for more is by filing a ‘special declaration of interest in the delivery of your luggage’ (see section 10.2.3) and paying the charge which will be set by the individual airline, or by going through your insurance company separately.
5: What if You Get Bumped?
Airlines can’t afford to fly with empty seats, and they know that not everyone will show for flights.
So they routinely overbook, as part of the business model that keeps fares down. Which is fine - until everyone does turn up and there’s not enough room on the plane for everyone who’s bought a ticket.
When that happens, airlines will usually call for volunteers to get ‘bumped’ to a later flight. That lets the flight go ahead as planned - but what happens to the bumpees?
The responsibility airlines have towards bumped passengers is laid out in the Denied Boarding Regulations. They cover you if you’re flying within the EU, arriving at an EU airport, or flying with an EU-registered airline.
If the airline can arrange for enough volunteers to keep the flight as planned, they’ll usually offer benefits - upgrades, access to the VIP lounge area, vouchers for flights, and other freebies.
They’re basically offering a deal: take it and you could stand to gain, but it’s not always a great fit for families!
If they can’t get enough volunteers they have the right to deny some passengers boarding against their will, even if you’ve paid, booked and checked in on time.
They must both give assistance in the form of the standard care package, and pay compensation for a cancelled flight.
What if the Airline Won’t Cooperate?
If the airline won’t deal properly with your complaint, your final recourse is to the Civil Aviation Authority, or CAA, which oversees the industry.
You can contact the CAA at [email protected] or by calling 020 7453 6888 between 9:30am and 2:30pm Monday-Thursday.
It’s the CAA’s job to keep tabs on airlines and make them obey civil aviation law, so if the airline won’t do as it’s supposed to, it’s the CAA you want to call.
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* If you’re delayed or your flight is cancelled the airline has to take care of you, regardless of compensation.
* If you checked your baggage in, the airline has to find it: it’s their responsibility.
* If you want your rights, show up on time: if you didn’t check in 45 minutes before takeoff you might not be compensated even if the delay or cancellation isn’t your fault.