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One of the ways in which US travel regulations lag behind those of Europe is when it comes to compensating passengers for flight delays and cancellations. Airlines have very little accountability and few guidelines they must adhere to when making good on flight mishaps and travel issues here in the US – just ask anyone who spent several days in an airport this winter waiting out storms, aircraft issues and crew timeouts. Though you can often get vouchers or bonus miles depending on the circumstances, what we lack is a unified, codified set of compensatory rules sanctioned by the government that holds airlines accountable for their operational issues and the impact they have on travelers.
Now, I’m not saying to regulate the airlines to kingdom come, because I understand there are issues beyond anyone’s control, including weather, acts of God and just plain plane problems that come up with pieces of machinery, but our airlines have gone to the extreme protecting themselves from liability with draconian contracts of carriage that barely acknowledge the responsibility of getting passengers from point A to point B.
A far cry from our lack of a system is EU Regulation 261/2004, which was put into place in February 2005. Here’s what it says, as laid out on the handy Europa site, which neatly summarizes the actual regulation:
“If you are denied boarding or your flight is cancelled or overbooked, you are entitled to either:
- transport to your final destination using comparable alternative means, or
- having your ticket refunded and, where relevant, being returned free of charge to your initial departure point.
Long delays – if your flight is delayed by 5 hours or more, you are also entitled to a refund (But if you accept a refund, the airline does not have to provide any further onward travel or assistance).
Your airline must inform you about your rights and the reason for being denied boarding, or any cancellations or long delays (over 2 hours, although this may be up to 4 hours for flights in excess of 3500 km).
Food & Board
You may also be entitled to refreshments, meals, communications (such as a free phone call), and, if necessary, overnight stay, depending on the flight distance and length of delay.”
But here’s where it gets interesting…and where airlines have to pay up:
In addition, if you are denied boarding, your flight is cancelled or arrives more than 3 hours late on arrival at the final destination stated on your ticket, you may be entitled to compensation of €250 – 600, depending on the distance of the flight:
Within the EU
- 1,500 km or less – €250
- over 1,500 km – €400
Between EU airport and non-EU airport
- 1,500 km or less – €250
- 1,500 – 3,500 km – €400
- over 3,500 km – €600
So on a flight from the EU to the US, you’re looking at 600 EUR ($825) in compensation possibly.
Now, before you go calling up every single airline about delayed flights from the past, there are some reasonable restrictions on compensation where the airline is not required to provide any, or quite as much if it follows these rules (also taken from the Europa site):
“If the carrier offered you an alternative flight with a similar schedule, the compensation may be reduced by 50%.
With cancelled flights, you won’t receive compensation if:
- the cancellation was due to extraordinary circumstances for example due to bad weather, or
- you were informed 2 weeks before the scheduled flight date, or
- you were offered an alternative for the same route with a similar schedule to the original one.
For cancellation due to extraordinary circumstances you may not have the right to compensation, the carrier must still offer you either:
- a ticket refund (in full or just the part you have not used)
- alternative transport to your final destination at the earliest opportunity or
- rebooking at a later date of your choice (subject to seat availability).”
So the guidelines are much more concrete and, in my opinion, fair, given that they allow passengers to claim compensation for major delays and cancellations, while airlines are spared the brunt of these compensation demands in cases beyond their control. Not only that, but they apply to award tickets – basically any flight with a confirmed reservation.
What many US flyers might not realize, however, is that it is not just European carriers who are subject to these rules – US carriers flying from and within Europe must also abide by them. Just note that flights originating outside the EU on EU carriers are subject to these rules, while flights on non-EU carriers originating outside the EU are not subject to these rules.
Case in point, my friend Adam shared the following story from a colleague of his who experienced a delay on a Delta flight from Dublin to New York. He submitted a customer care form with the following text (bolding mine):
“I’m writing to find out if I am entitled to compensation under REGULATION (EC) No 261/2004 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL. My understanding of this European law is that it entitles passengers to compensation when flights leaving from Europe are delayed. This flight was delayed for over six hours. Thank you for letting me know if this is something I am entitled to. As always, I appreciate all of the excellent service I receive on Delta.”
A very nice, succinct letter with all the facts included. Here’s the response he got from Delta (names and dates have been removed, bolding mine):
RE: Case Number _____
Thanks for your email regarding the flight delay you experienced departing Dublin on ____.
I’m really sorry about the delay you had due to a mechanical problem on the aircraft into Dublin which was to be used for your Flight ___ to New York. I’m sure it was difficult to spend time waiting to depart. I can certainly understand the inconvenience due the the lengthy delay.
Your travel falls under the guidelines of European Union Regulation (EC) 261/2004 defining an airline’s requirements when flight changes occur. Delta Flight __ on ___ from Dublin to New York was delayed due to mechanical difficulties with the inbound aircraft. After the problem was identified, repairs were necessary so the flight could continue on. I’ve reviewed your claim and you’re due additional compensation in accordance with the EU recommendations. Since you were issued a voucher in the amount of $150, I’ll be requesting a check in the amount of $616. Please allow enough time for processing and postal delivery.
Your longtime loyalty is important to us. We look forward to getting you to where you need to be on time – on your next Delta flight!
You Share, We Care”
So there you have it. This person got $816 – roughly the 600 EUR he was due, all for submitting a quick complaint form…well, and enduring a 6-hour delay in Dublin! But it just goes to show that it pays to know your rights since he basically got enough money for another flight to Europe. But remember, if his flight had been going in the other direction – from JFK to Dublin on Delta – he wouldn’t have been entitled to this compensation. It’s because his flight on a US carrier originated in Europe and was delayed that he got paid.
If you want to submit a claim of your own, you can do it by sending the air passenger rights EU complaint form to your airline – and make sure you keep a copy for yourself.
You can also notify the national enforcement body in the EU country where the incident took place, or if it happened at a non-EU airport but involved an EU carrier, you can send your complaint to the national enforcement body in the EU country you were traveling to.