Thousands of planes criss-cross the skies above Europe every day taking millions of passengers to their final destinations. Thanks to the significant increase in the number of available flights, travellers experience a world seemingly getting smaller and much more colourful and diverse by the day.
However, increased air travel also means that a large number of unlucky passengers are often forced to spend endless hours stranded at cheerless airports. We’ve all been there. Long delays, cancelled flights, denied boarding.
While the discomfort and frustration of a flight disruption are unavoidable, passengers could claim flight compensation under EU Regulation 261/2004 (EC261). In this article, we will let you in on all of your most important passenger rights according to the regulation.
What are your rights?
Unfortunately, only 1 in 8 air travellers is aware of their rights under flight compensation Regulation 261/ 2004. This is the law that sets minimum standards for air travel in the European Union.
To help you learn more about your rights and the airline’s obligations, this article will address the following questions:
- What is EU Regulation 261/2004?
- Where does EU Regulation 261/2004 apply?
- When does EU Regulation 261/2004 apply?
We will also discuss flight compensation, your right to rerouting and reimbursement, care and assistance, as well as flight downgrading/upgrading.
What is EU Regulation 261?
Flight compensation Regulation 261 was passed in 2004 to establish the minimum rights for passengers in the European Union. The law applies when:
- passengers are denied boarding against their will;
- their flight is cancelled;
- their flight is delayed.
EU Regulation 261/2004 aims to reduce and compensate passengers for the trouble and inconvenience that a flight disturbance may cause. To this end, the law imposes certain obligations on air carriers. If airlines fail to fulfill these obligations, Regulation 261/2004 requires them to pay cancelled flight compensation or flight delay compensation to the affected passengers.
In brief, the law requires air carriers to seek volunteers in the event of denied boarding and offer them special benefits. They are also expected to inform passengers about cancellations well in advance, as well as offer them reasonable rerouting and reimbursement. Airlines must also offer care and assistance (food, drinks, and accommodation) in case of long/overnight delays.
In a nutshell, flight compensation Regulation 261/2004 posits that every air passenger affected by a flight delay, denied boarding or cancellation may be entitled to compensation of up to €600.
Where does EU Regulation 261 apply?
Flight compensation Regulation 261/2004 was created to protect the rights of air passengers in the European Union.
It applies to the countries from the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA) listed in the following table:
|EU Member states||Also included in ECAA|
|Belgium||Bosnia and Herzegovina|
|The Azores||The Canary Islands|
|The Netherlands||United Kingdom|
So if you are flying:
- from the EU, or
- to the EU and the operating air carrier is registered in EU
and you experience a delay, cancellation or you are denied boarding, under EU Regulation 261/2004, you may be entitled to compensation.
Passengers are entitled to compensation in all cases of disturbed flights, except in the event of ‘extraordinary circumstances’. Examples of ‘extraordinary circumstances’ include prohibitive weather, political unrest and hidden manufacturing defects. In general, any circumstances deemed beyond the control of the airline would qualify as exceptional.
When does Regulation 261 apply?
Flight compensation Regulation 261 sets common rules for compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of:
Depending on the circumstances this compensation may range from €250 to €600
There are a few restrictions, however. You cannot claim flight compensation citing EU Regulation 261 if:
- you are travelling free of charge or at a reduced fare which is not available to the public
- you arrived late for check-in
- the disruption was due to ‘extraordinary circumstances’.
Under EU Regulation 261, if an air passenger is denied boarding as a result of overbooking, they are entitled to compensation.
Overbooking is often caused by the airline’s attempt to maximize the possible profits from a flight by compensating for no-show passengers. If all passengers show up however and this leads to a shortage of seats, the air carrier is required to find volunteers who would be willing to give up their reservation in exchange for benefits. Irrespective of these benefits, all volunteers are entitled to reimbursement or rerouting.
In brief, if you end up being denied boarding, there would be two possible scenarios.
First: If you voluntarily decide not to fly, the air carrier has to:
- offer you some benefits for your inconvenience and willingness to give up your plans
- refund the full price of your reservation
- book you on an alternative flight
Second case: If the airline does not find volunteers and you are denied boarding against your will, you are eligible for flight compensation under Regulation 261.
The amount of this compensation will depend on the flight distance. For flights up to 1500 km it is €250. You would be eligible for €400 if your trip distance is between 1500 km and 3500 km. And finally, if your flight spans over 3500 km, your compensation can reach up to €600.
The air carrier will still have to reimburse you or offer you re-routing, irrespective of this compensation.
Upgrading and downgrading
Remember that if the alternative flight you are offered places you in a higher class, the air carrier cannot request from you any additional payment.
Alternatively, if you are placed in a lower fare class, the air carrier must refund 30/50/75% of the cost of your ticket depending on the flight distance.
Refund in case of downgrading
(as percentage of the original ticket cost)
Less than 1500 km
1500 km to 3500 km
Over 3500 km
Cancelled flight: Passenger rights under EC261
To minimize the inconvenience caused by flight cancellations, EU Regulation 261/ 2004 requires air carriers to inform travellers of cancelled flights well in advance. Airlines are also obliged to offer you an alternate flight arriving at your destination within a reasonable timeframe. If these obligations are not fulfilled, air carriers are required to pay compensation.
The obligations of the airline
The following table summarizes the conditions under which airlines are released from having to pay cancellation compensation:
Replacement flight provisions
Departs no more than 2 hours before original schedule and arrives less than 4 hours behind schedule
Less than 7 days
Departs no more than 1 hour before original schedule and arrives less than 2 hours behind schedule
Cancelled flight compensation
However, unless the cancellation was due to extraordinary circumstances, when a flight is cancelled last minute, its passengers would be entitled to compensation.
As with flight delays and denied boarding, according to EU Regulation 261/2004, the amount of your flight cancellation compensation depends on the flight distance. For flights under 1500 km, the compensation owed is €250. If the distance of your journey is between 1500 km and 3500 km for non-EU flights and over 1500 km for all intra-EU trips, you are entitled to a compensation of €400. The amount rises to €600 for flights spanning more than 3500 km.
Remember that Regulation 261 covers flights either departing from the EU or arriving at an EU airport and operated by an EU-based air carrier.
Cancelled flight: your invariable rights
In case of a flight cancellation, in addition to this compensation, EU Regulation 261/2004 requires airlines to offer air passengers one of the following:
- an alternative flight to the same destination at the earliest opportunity (under comparable conditions)
- a later alternative flight, at the passenger’s convenience, to the same destination
- a full refund of the ticket cost for the complete itinerary, as well as a return flight to the original point of departure, if the cancellation occurs mid-journey
Regulation 261: Delayed flights
Under EU Regulation 261/ 2004, passengers whose flight has been delayed more than 3 hours are eligible for compensation between €250 and €600 depending on the flight distance.
Delays can often cause a lot of trouble and inconvenience. Yet, they are usually the result of unexpected circumstances. If these circumstances are extraordinary, the airline is freed from the obligation of paying compensation. Alternatively, if the airline had the capacity to either prevent or mitigate the delay but failed to do so, air passengers are entitled to compensation.
The obligations of the airline: the right to information
Your first right in case of a long delay is to be informed of the content of EU Regulation 261/ 2004. Airlines are expected to display information concerning passengers’ rights at their check-in desks on all airports where they operate.
You should also inquire about the reason for the delay and check if other air carriers are operating from your airport.
EU Flight Delay Compensation
If the airline did not take all reasonable measures to prevent or ameliorate the delay, you could be eligible for flight delay compensation under Regulation 261/2004.
Note: Remember that you may claim compensation if there’s more than a 3-hour delay upon arrival at your final destination.
This means that even if you have spent over 3 hours at the airport before taking off, if the pilot manages to make up for the late departure and arrives at your destination with a delay of 2:45h, you will not be able to claim flight delay compensation.
How much compensation can you claim for a delayed flight?
Delayed flight compensation under EU Regulation 261/2004 is determined in relation to the distance of the flight, as follows:
- For all flights up to 1500 km, the claimable compensation is €250,
- For all intra-EU flights over 1500 km, the amount rises to €400,
- For all non-EU flights between 1500 km and 3500 km the sum is again €400,
- For all non-EU flights exceeding a distance of 3500 km the compensation may reach up to €600.
Note that the compensation amount is for each individual passenger. So if you travelled with your family, you can claim this amount for each family member that flew with you.
What does Brexit mean for your air passenger rights?
It is official. The United Kingdom has left the European Union. Has the level of protection of passengers travelling between the EU and the UK been affected? Here is the answer:
Existing passenger rights continue for air passengers flying from the UK.
For EU registered airlines, EU law still applies for flights to and from the EU.
Assistance, compensation and protection continues for:
- passengers subject to denied boarding, delay or cancellation;
- passengers with reduced mobility;
- insolvency of a travel provider.
Moreover, passengers flying from the UK will continue to transfer to onward flights at EU airports without any extra security screening. This is also the case at airports in Switzerland, Norway and Iceland.
There is no impact on direct flights to non-EU countries.
According to the withdrawal agreement (the 2018 EU Withdrawal Bill), both the UK and the EU will guarantee that effective measures are put in place to protect access to information for passengers, passengers with disabilities and reduced mobility, reimbursement and compensation, and the efficient handling of complaints.
The UK government is retaining many aspects of the EU legislation in its domestic law, including the EU Regulation 261. The UK law now covers any and all flights that:
- leave the UK regardless of the airline;
- take off outside of the UK and touch down in the UK and the airline is registered as EU or UK;
- take off outside of the UK and touch down in the EU and the airline is registered as a UK air carrier.
What has changed to EU Regulation 261 after Brexit?
Right now, nothing has changed to the way you claim flight delay compensation.
However, you should know that the EU Regulation 261 is no longer protected by EU law. The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) cannot influence the UK legislation.
What this means is that in the future it is possible that the UK government makes changes to the law, which can affect how passengers claim flight compensation and other related matters.
Regulation 261 and Flight Delays: FAQ
Q: Can I get compensation for a 2-hour flight delay?
A: Unfortunately, according to EU rules, the duration of your delay needs to exceed 3 hours for compensation eligibility.
Q: How far back can I claim flight delay compensation?
A: EU Regulation 261/2004 does not specify an EU-wide limitation period. Therefore, the limit will vary from country to country and between 1 year (Belgium and Poland) and 10 years (Luxemburg).
In the majority of countries, however, the limitation period is 3 years.
Q: What happens if you miss a connecting flight due to a delay?
A: If your tickets are under the same booking number and you arrive at your final destination with a delay of over three hours, under EU Regulation 261/04, you could claim compensation.
If your missed connection was the airline's fault, your carrier should offer you an alternate flight to your next destination. In addition, the airline is required to either pay for your necessary expenses (food, refreshments and hotel accommodation, where applicable) or reimburse you afterwards.
Care and assistance
In the event of a long delay, in addition to the compensation, passengers have the right to:
- meals and refreshments for the duration of their delay
- two free phone calls and emails
Typically, in case of long delays, airlines offer travellers food and drink vouchers. If you do not receive one, however, feel free to buy whatever you need and keep the receipts.
The air carrier is required to cover these expenses.
Flight delay over 5 hours: Right to reimbursement and rerouting
Under EC261, if a flight delay exceeds 5 hours, passengers have the right to abandon their flight. In this case, they are entitled to a full or partial refund of their reservation. If the delay occurs mid-journey, the airline is also required to offer a return flight to the first point of departure.
Overnight delay: Right to accommodation
Air passenger rights Regulation EC No. 261/ 2004 (as it is more formally known) stipulates also that in the event of a delay that requires you to wait overnight, the air carrier must cover your accommodation expenses. What is more, if the hotel is located at a distance from the airport, the airline must also pay for the transfer to and from the hotel.
Extraordinary circumstances constitute the only case when air carriers are freed from the obligation to pay compensation to air passengers.
Unfortunately, airlines may sometimes use ‘extraordinary circumstances’ as an excuse.
Technical faults, for example, were initially cited as ‘extraordinary circumstances’ to avoid compensation until court rulings excluded them from the list.
As a result, today airlines cannot use technical issues as a reason for not paying passengers their due compensation for a delayed flight. Unlike avoidable technical faults, hidden manufacturing issues are considered to lie beyond the responsibility of airlines, therefore they fall within the ‘exceptional circumstances’ category.
There are many possible scenarios and as the term is very general, it leaves room for interpretations. Here is a list of the most common instances of extraordinary circumstances:
- bad weather conditions
- airport strikes
- political or civil unrest
- medical emergency
- air traffic control restrictions
- hidden manufacturing defect
What are NOT extraordinary circumstances?
- bad weather affecting a previous flight
- airline staff issues/strikes
- technical problems with the aircraft
- missing flight documentation
How can you claim compensation under EU Regulation 261/2004?
Claiming your flight compensation is quick and easy with SkyRefind.
Simply follow these steps:
- Enter your flight details in our free compensation calculator to see whether you are entitled. If you are, submit your claim.
- Relax. Our team of aviation law experts will take care of all the hassle. We will even take legal action if necessary.
- Receive your compensation. We will transfer the money to you immediately and deduct a fee of 25% + VAT. Our service is completely free unless we enforce your right to compensation.