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TPG’s guide to understanding EU261 flight compensation

June 07, 2022
13 min read
Flight attendant strike at Lufthansa
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Let's be honest, flight delays and cancellations are an inevitable part of airline travel, and we've seen a lot of them so far this summer.

Unfortunately, in the U.S., there's no federal law requiring airlines to provide passengers with money or other compensation when their flights are delayed or canceled since each airline is responsible for implementing its own policies. At most, this generally results in credits for meals or hotels, not often covering the entire price.

However, when traveling within the European Union, it's a different story since existing regulations provide monetary relief to passengers for flights affected by delays and or cancellations thanks to a 2005 regulation known as EU261.

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.

In April, Europe broadened this rule to apply to domestic connecting flights originating in the EU, which means flights within the EU, flights departing from the EU to the U.S. (and other countries) and even the connecting flights you are booked on within the U.S. are now eligible for compensation.

This guide details how EU261 works and how affected passengers can submit claims for compensation.

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What countries are part of the EU?

(Photo by Yevhen Borysov/Getty Images)

As mentioned, this legislation helps travelers on flights within the 27 EU nations, specifically: 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.

EU airline regulations also cover flights outside of the EU, specifically in Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Reunion Island, Mayotte, Saint-Martin (French Antilles), the Azores, Madeira, the Canary Islands, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. (The Faroe Islands, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are not included.)

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EU carriers, other carriers operating in these areas and flights on partner airlines or codeshare flights outside of the EU, including connecting flights in the U.S. operated by U.S. carriers, must abide by EU261 rules.

Related: This EU261 claim netted a passenger $1,900 for a delayed flight

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 ItineraryYou’re flying an EU carrierYou’re flying a non-EU carrier
Flight from the EU to the EUThis flight is covered by EU261.This flight is covered by EU261.
Flight from the EU to non-EUThis flight is covered by EU261.This flight is covered by EU261.
Flight outside of the EU to the EUThis flight is covered by EU261.This flight is covered by EU261.
Flight outside of the EU to non-EUThis flight is not covered by EU261.This flight is not covered by EU261.

Travelers flying in the EU must receive a printed or electronic notice of EU air passenger rights, which is also posted at 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 experience a two-plus hour delay.

To file a EU261 claim, you must have a valid ticket and booking confirmation. Although revenue and award tickets qualify for compensation, free or reduced fares that are not available to the public are excluded from compensation.

Compensation for delays and cancellations

(Photo by Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images)

Rules for compensation are based on the specific time you were notified of the flight delay or cancellation and the distance of your intended flights. The longer the distance, the greater the compensation.

What is considered a flight delay under EU261?

Passengers on a delayed flight have a right to the airline’s assistance, reimbursement and a return flight, depending on the length 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,” including weather, political strife, air traffic control decisions that are out of the airline’s control and security risks.

Things like mechanical and technical problems are not extraordinary circumstances. However, airline strikes, for example, may be considered an extraordinary circumstance.

In some cases, airlines may be exempt from paying compensation, including if they can prove an unavoidable impact even if all reasonable measures had been taken.

Related: Why new compensation rules for some delayed flights might not be as good as they sound

What should I expect if my flight is delayed?

(Photo by narvikk/Getty Images)

When your flight is delayed beyond its scheduled departure time, EU261 entitles you to meals (in proportion to the wait time) plus two free phone calls, emails or faxes, within the following duration and distance constraints:

  • A delay of two-plus hours for flights of 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) or less.
  • A delay of three-plus hours for intra-EU flights of more than 1,500 kilometers and for all other flights between 1,500-3,000 kilometers (932-1,864 miles).
  • A delay of four-plus hours for all other flights.

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

If your flight is delayed at least five hours after scheduled 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.

What is considered a flight cancellation under EU261?

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).

What should I expect if my flight is canceled?

(Photo by MStudioImages/Getty Images)

When a flight covered by EU261 is canceled, you have the right to reimbursement, rerouting, assistance from the airline and compensation if the airline fails to inform you of said cancellation at least 14 days before takeoff.

Related: Passengers must now be compensated when a flight in Europe leaves early due to a schedule change

Airlines are also obligated to prove they properly notified you of the cancellation. But again, compensation is not owed in cases of flights canceled due to extraordinary circumstances.

If your flight is canceled, the airline must offer you 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 seat availability.

Additionally, you are entitled to compensation depending on the distance of your flight and the length of the delay past your originally planned arrival.

The airline must 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 passengers on flights departing more than an hour earlier than the original departure time are owed compensation under EU261. 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

250 euros ($267) per passenger1,500 kilometers (932 miles) or less
400 euros ($427) per passengerMore than 1,500 kilometers within the EU and all other flights between 1,500-3,500 kilometers (932-1,864 miles)
600 euros ($641) per passenger3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) or more

Any compensation may be reduced by half if you accept a reroute from the airline to your final destination, with delays of two to four hours.

How does EU261 affect US-based passengers?

(Photo by Michael Duva/Getty Images)

Suppose you live in the U.S. and while flying from New York to Frankfurt on Lufthansa, you encounter a three-hour delay at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). If the pilot is unable to make up the time in the air and you arrive three hours later than your scheduled arrival time in Frankfurt, you are entitled to meals and refreshments along with additional compensation, thanks to EU261. U.S.-based flyers 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 an EU country.

Because of a recent addition to the rule, passengers on any flight originating in Europe, even if you're ticketed on a different airline for a connecting flight, are eligible to get money back.

This expanded rule means EU261 cancellation and delay rules are also applicable for passengers on domestic connecting flights within the U.S., sparked by a lawsuit regarding a delayed Lufthansa-ticketed flight from Brussels to Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) in California that included a connecting flight in Newark, operated by United Airlines.

The connecting flight from New Jersey to San Jose was delayed by nearly four hours. Even though this delay affected a U.S. flight route, the court declared that these travelers were still eligible under the EU law because their journey on a single ticket originated in Belgium.

As you might have gathered by now, you don’t need to be a citizen of the EU to qualify for compensation as long as you meet the aforementioned requirements. U.S.-based passengers can also make compensation claims.

Related: Even more reasons to download your airline's mobile app — summer flight delays and cancellations

How to claim compensation

(Photo by Mongkol Chuewong/Getty Images)

In order to receive compensation, passengers must file a claim in a timely manner based on specific deadlines set forth by each 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, if you flew Air France, French rules say you have until the fifth full year following your flight to file.

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 date of the canceled flight to file a claim.

Even so, we recommend filing as soon as possible after your flight goes awry.

Airlines allow passengers to file a EU261 claim in a few different ways. Some ask you to fill out a form electronically while others may provide instructions on how to file a claim via email or by mail.

Regardless of the method, you'll need to 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.

Related: How I finally got my money from AirHelp for a delayed flight in Europe

You can generally find instructions on how to submit a claim on a carrier's website. However, if you have trouble finding that information, you can also print and complete the Air Passenger Rights EU Complaint Form and submit it to the airline directly.

Because airlines deal with a lot of claims, expect to wait as little as a few weeks or as much as a few months for the airline to respond to your claim in question.

Even if you do everything right and are actually entitled to compensation, you might run into a roadblock. Don't get discouraged, though.

TPG senior reporter Benji Stawski submitted a claim after his flight, Norwegian Air's inaugural A380 flight from New York (JFK) to London Gatwick Airport (LGW) departed nearly five hours late. Although the airline initially rejected his claim, he finally received his check after enlisting the assistance of AirHelp, a company that aids travelers trying to recoup compensation from airlines.

Additionally, there are other companies, like EUclaim and Flightright, that will handle your claim application while also taking a percentage of the amount owed (15%-25%) for themselves.

Bottom line

(Photo by Jingying Zhao/Getty Images)

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 a EU261 claim under eligible conditions when flying with an EU carrier when departing an EU country, when on a non-EU airline or on a connecting U.S. flight originating in Europe.

While delays and cancellations are part of commercial aviation, it pays to know your rights — literally.

Related: Flight delayed? Remember these 4 things if you want trip delay reimbursement from your credit card

Additional reporting by Caroline Tanner.

Featured image by dpa/picture alliance via Getty I
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.