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The United States isn’t known for its strong consumer protections when it comes to air passenger rights, but it doesn’t mean that American carriers aren’t subject to other nations’ laws that protect flyers. Still, US carriers are not fully complying with European Union law on compensation for delays, says AirHelp, a company that assists travelers in recouping compensation from airlines.

Airhelp has released a study claiming that US airlines wrongfully reject between 22% and 32% of passengers’ claims under the European Union’s EC 261 rule. EC 261 covers, under qualifying circumstances, travelers whose flights have been delayed for more than two hours or cancelled, compelling airlines to compensate affected travelers. Payouts can reach up to 600 euros for flights delayed longer than four hours.

US airlines don’t have to compensate passengers for delays when departing from the US on flights to European Union countries. But if they’re leaving from an EU airport, then they’re bound by law to pay passengers if a flight falls under EC 261’s criteria.

“AirHelp found more than 25% of valid claims filed against U.S. airlines for disrupted flights in 2016, 2017 and 2018 were turned away on wrongful grounds by airlines trying to avoid their obligation to travelers,” the company said in a release.

AirHelp broke down data from January 1, 2016 through December 31, 2018 for the three US airlines with regularly scheduled flights between the US and countries in the European Union.

US Ranking Global ranking for wrongfully rejected claims rate Airline Wrongfully Rejected Claim Rate
1 32 Delta 32%
2 42 United 23%
3 44 American 22%

Delta is the worst offender, with AirHelp saying it wrongfully rejects nearly one third of claims. However, both United and American aren’t too far behind, declining more than one in five claims.

Paloma Salmeron, AirHelp’s head of communications, said the company analyzed hundreds of thousands of its own claims submitted to the airlines against a list of flights that it says should qualify for compensation under EC 261. AirHelp sifted through delay reports, weather reports, media updates and other resources to build out a database of flights that should qualify for some sort of reimbursement under the EU law.

“The reason why airlines more often than not can get away with it is because first of all passengers don’t know their rights,” Salmeron said. Despite the EU regulation, which has been in effect since 2005, airlines are not doing all they should informing passengers that they may be eligible for compensation during a delay, she added.

AirHelp also claims that the number of US travelers eligible to claim compensation under EC 261 rose from 370,000 in 2017 to 407,000 in 2018.

Last year, AirHelp conducted a survey that found 75% of US travelers felt they were not being informed by airlines about their rights, and that less than a quarter of those who experienced a delay or cancelled flights actually filed claims.

“While Delta has not seen or reviewed the claims made in this study, complying with all applicable laws, regulations and rules across our global route map is a top priority,” a Delta spokesperson told TPG. An American Airlines spokesperson told us that they “thoroughly evaluate all claims filed” and are reviewing AirHelp’s data.

“We are reviewing the claims in this study,” a United Airlines spokesperson told TPG. “United Airlines takes seriously our responsibility to comply with all applicable laws and fully complies with the terms of Regulation 261.”

So what can you do if you’ve been affected by a delay that’s covered under EC 261? You can submit a request with the airline directly, but you could find yourself in a prolonged legal battle. However there are a number of services that will fight for payment on your behalf including AirHelp, EUclaim, Flightright and JetRights. However, these companies will take a cut, anywhere from 15 to 25%, of the payout if they’re successful.

TPG contributor Benji Stawski has detailed his headache attempting to get compensation from Norwegian — admittedly, not a US airline — after a delay of nearly five hours. He’s turned to AirHelp, who’s brought the case to court. Many commenters responded to a thread in the TPG lounge citing the extensive amount of time it took to get paid after incurring a delay.

Many credit cards offer trip insurance and trip delay protections which can help in the event of a cancellation or delay, and these policies are on top of what can be recouped through EC 261.

This story was updated to include comment from United Airlines. 

Featured image by Alberto Riva / The Points Guy.

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