TPG’s guide to understanding EU261 flight compensation

Jan 3, 2020

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Flight delays and cancellations are an inevitable part of airline travel. In the U.S., airlines have little obligation to help passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled, beyond rebooking them on the next available flight to their destination. (Here’s what to do when your flight is delayed or canceled in the U.S.) But when traveling within the European Union, regulations really favor the passenger.

On its website, the U.S. Department of Transportation says: “There are no federal laws requiring airlines to provide passengers with money or other compensation when their flights are delayed. Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers. If your flight is experiencing a long delay, ask airline staff if they will pay for meals or a hotel room. While some airlines offer these amenities to passengers, others do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers.”

In the U.S. it’s particularly helpful that certain credit cards offer trip insurance and trip delay protection. Paid services like Freebird can also come to the rescue in these situations.

Related: If my flight is canceled, should I rebook myself or wait for the airline?

By contrast, the EU took a different approach in 2005. Its regulation, often referred to as EU261, holds airlines in the European Union financially accountable when most air travel delays or cancellations occur.

As a result, airlines have shelled out hundreds of millions of euros to passengers — even leading Europe’s largest low-cost carrier, Ryanair, to charge a 2-euro-per-ticket fee to cover EU261 expenses.

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In This Post

What countries are part of the EU?

To know if EU261 can help you in the case of a flight delay or cancellation, it’s important to know which countries are part of the EU.

There are 27 EU countries: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.

Also covered by EU airline regulations are Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Reunion Island, Mayotte, Saint-Martin (French Antilles), the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands, plus Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. (The Faeroe Islands, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are not included.)

EU carriers, as well as other carriers operating in these areas, must adhere to EU261 in certain circumstances that we’ll discuss below. And in July 2019, the European Court of Justice expanded passenger compensation to include flights on partner airlines or codeshare flights outside of the EU, if originating in a Union country.

Related: Comparing Europe’s top 4 low-cost carriers

What flights are covered by EU261?

There are a few different scenarios in which EU261 may kick in to protect passenger rights. They include flight delays and cancellations on itineraries like these:

Flight Itinerary You’re flying an EU carrier You’re flying a non-EU carrier
Flight from the EU to the EU This flight is covered by EU261 This flight is covered by EU261
Flight from the EU to non-EU This flight is covered by EU261 This flight is covered by EU261
Flight outside of the EU to the EU This flight is covered by EU261 This flight is not covered by EU261
Flight outside of the EU to non-EU This flight is not covered by EU261 This flight is not covered by EU261

When flying in the EU, you must receive a printed or electronic notice of EU air-passenger rights. It must be posted at the check-in desks, check-in kiosks and on the airline’s website. The airline must also give you a copy of this notice if you were denied boarding, your flight was canceled or you had a delay of more than two hours.

To file an EU261 claim, you must have a valid ticket and booking confirmation. A revenue or award ticket qualifies but passengers flying on a free or reduced fare that is not available to the public are excluded from receiving compensation.

(Photo by JOSE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images)
You are not eligible for compensation if you are flying on a free or reduced-fare ticket not available to the public. (Photo by Jose Jordan/AFP/Getty Images)

Compensation for delays and cancellations

Rules for compensation are based on the specific time you were notified of the flight delay or cancellation as well as the distance of your intended flights. Longer-distance flights are entitled to greater compensation. Let’s look at delays first.

What happens when a flight is delayed?

Under regulation EU261, passengers on a delayed flight have a right to the airline’s assistance, reimbursement and a return flight, depending on the duration of the delay and the distance of the flight. If you are delayed three or more hours, you are entitled to compensation (see the chart below) unless the delay was caused by “extraordinary circumstances,” which include bad weather, political strife, air traffic control decisions that are out of the airline’s control and security risks on the ground.

Things like mechanical and technical problems are not extraordinary circumstances. What about strikes? According to the regulation, a strike may be considered an extraordinary circumstance. Airlines can be exempt from paying compensation if they can prove there is a link between the extraordinary circumstances and the delay or the cancellation and that the delay or cancellation could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken.

Related: What to ask for when things go wrong on your flight

What should I expect if my flight is delayed?

When your flight is delayed beyond its scheduled departure time, EU261 entitles you to meals (in proportion to the wait time) plus two free telephone calls, emails or faxes. These perks kick in with:

  • a delay of two hours or more for flights of 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) or less
  • a delay of three hours or more for intra-Union flights of more than 1,500 kilometers and for all other flights between 1,500 and 3,000 kilometers
  • a delay of four hours or more for all other flights

If your new departure is scheduled at least the day after your originally scheduled flight, you are entitled to a complimentary hotel room, as well as transportation to and from the airport to your accommodations.

Finally, in the case that your flight is delayed at least five hours at departure, the airline is required to reimburse your ticket. If you have a connecting flight, the airline is also required to get you to that airport as soon as possible.

Related: How we got 1,200 euros for a flight delay — reader success story

What is a flight cancellation for EU261 purposes?

Sometimes, airlines must cancel flights. For the purposes of EU261 compensation, a cancellation means one of the following:

  • your original flight is canceled and you are moved to another scheduled flight
  • your aircraft took off but was forced to return to the departing airport and the airline transferred you to another flight
  • your flight arrived at an airport which is not the final destination indicated on your itinerary (unless you accepted rerouting or the airport of arrival and the airport of the original itinerary service the same town, city or region)

Related: Are you entitled to compensation if your flight is canceled due to a strike?

What should I expect if my flight is canceled?

When a flight covered by EU261 is canceled, you have the right to reimbursement, rerouting, assistance from the airline and compensation. The airline must inform you of flight cancellations 14 days or more before takeoff or you are entitled to compensation. The airline is also obligated to prove that it did notify you of the cancellation. No compensation is due if the flight was canceled due to extraordinary circumstances.

If your flight is canceled, the airline must offer three choices:

  • ticket reimbursement plus a return flight to the airport of departure if you have a connecting flight
  • rerouting to your final destination at the earliest opportunity
  • rerouting at a later date at your convenience under comparable conditions, subject to the availability of seats

Additionally, you are entitled to compensation depending on the distance of your flight and the length of the delay past your originally planned arrival. Throughout the cancellation event, the airline is required to offer assistance including food, refreshments, accommodation (if you are rebooked to travel the next day), transport to and from the hotel and two free phone calls, faxes or emails.

Related: Credit cards that provide trip delay coverage

What should I expect if my flight is rescheduled for an earlier time?

On Dec. 21, 2021, the EU’s Court of Justice ruled that EU261 compensation is now due when a flight departs more than an hour earlier than originally scheduled. When that happens within 14 days of departure, the flight is considered canceled under the rules.

How much compensation will I get for a delay or flight cancellation?

If you meet the eligibility requirements discussed above for either a delay or cancellation, you’ll receive compensation accordingly.

Compensation Distance
250 euros per passenger 1,500 kilometers or less
400 euros per passenger More than 1,500 kilometers within the EU and all other flights between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometers
600 euros per passenger More than 3,500 kilometers

Note that any compensation may be reduced by half if the airline offered, and you accepted, reroute you to your final destination with a delay of two, three or four hours.

How does EU261 affect U.S.-based passengers?

Suppose you live in the U.S. and while flying from New York to Frankfurt on Lufthansa, you encounter a three-hour delay at JFK. If the pilot is unable to make up the time in air and you arrive three hours later than your scheduled arrival time into Frankfurt, you are entitled to meals and refreshments along with additional compensation, thanks to the EU261 regulation. U.S.-based fliers can claim compensation since the flight is operated by an EU carrier.

In the same scenario as above but flying United Airlines back to the U.S. from Europe, a passenger would also be eligible for compensation under EU261 as they are departing from a European Union country.

Related: The ultimate guide to United Polaris

However, the tables turn when a passenger is flying from Atlanta to Paris on Delta Air Lines and incurs a long flight delay. EU261 would not be applicable to this passenger because the flight is not operated by an EU-based airline and originated outside the EU. If the same Atlanta to Paris route was operated by Air France instead, it would be eligible for compensation because Air France is an EU carrier.

Related: How to fly Delta One Suites to Europe

You don’t have to be a citizen of the EU to qualify for EU261 compensation. As long as you meet the aforementioned requirements, U.S.-based passengers can also make a claim for compensation under the EU261 regulation.

How to claim compensation

In order to receive EU261 compensation, passengers must file a claim in a timely manner but deadlines to file differ by country. The deadline to file a claim is not based on your citizenship, where you live or your destination but instead the location of the headquarters of the airline you flew. For example, in France, your deadline to file a claim would end on the fifth full year following your flight, as France has a lenient time frame for passengers to file an EU261 compensation claim.

(Photo by Chalabala/Getty Images)
You must file in a timely manner in order to be eligible for compensation. (Photo by Chalabala/Getty Images)

On the other hand, if you flew Brussels Airlines from Belgium to the U.S. and the flight was canceled, Belgian law allows only one year from the canceled flight date to file an EU261 claim. The best strategy is to file a claim shortly after your flight goes awry and provide supporting documents in a timely fashion.

Airlines have various methods for passengers to file a EU261 claim. Some will ask you to fill out a form electronically on the airline’s site. Others may provide instructions on how to file a claim via email or by physical mail. To submit an EU261 compensation claim, you’ll provide pertinent documentation (boarding pass, letter stating what went wrong with your flight, how much you are claiming while referencing EU261 terms and conditions) to the airline in question.

Here are links to more EU261 information for the airlines listed:

Should you have trouble finding a form on the airline’s website, fill out the Air Passenger Rights EU Complaint Form and mail it to the airline while also emailing it. The wait time to receive a claim response will vary between a few weeks to months, as airlines deal with thousands of claims. Patience and planning are paramount in order to receive a response to your EU261 claim.

Even if you do everything right and are actually entitled to compensation, you might run into a roadblock. TPG’s own Benji Stawski had trouble getting EU261 compensation from Norwegian and a study released by AirHelp last year indicated that U.S. airlines incorrectly reject 25% of their EU261 compensation claims. There are companies — like AirHelp, EUclaim, Flightright and JetRights — that will handle your claim application, but they’ll also take a percentage of the amount owed (15–25%) for themselves.

Bottom line

Under EU law, the consumer-friendly EU261 regulation supports passengers who encounter delays or cancellations. It requires airlines to pay compensation in certain circumstances. U.S.-based passengers can file an EU261 claim under eligible conditions when flying with an EU carrier or departing an EU country even when on a non-EU airline. While delays and cancellations are part of commercial aviation, it pays to know your rights.

Featured image by Silas Stein/picture alliance via Getty Images

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