Delayed and cancelled flights are among the worst fates that can befall a busy business traveller. Missing important meetings, missing connecting flights to your next round of important meetings – it's all designed to send your carefully-designed schedule in a tailspin.
While there's little that you can do on the ground, apart from being proactive as you sort out Plan B, you can claim compensation up to €600 (A$950) after the fact to help defray some of the costs incurred through your delay.
The trick is a specific passenger-friendly European law named EU261, which applies to any flight departing from an EU member state – even if it's a non-European airline such as Qantas, Singapore Airlines or Emirates.
EU261 also applies in instances when somebody other than yourself paid your fare, such as your company or a client, or when your ticket was booked using frequent flyer points.
However, even though you may be entitled to a claim, airlines don’t have to do anything until you actually approach them about it – so here’s a rundown of how EU261 works and how to make it work for you.
EU261 European flight compensation: which flies are eligible?
The EU261 Flight Compensation Regulations covers journeys departing from EU member states on any airline, as well as flights to EU member states from abroad if those are operated by a European airline.
For example, Qantas flights QF10 from London to Perth and QF2 from London to Singapore are covered under EU261 since they depart from an EU member state – but the QF9 and QF1 flights from Australia back to London are not eligible.
Conversely, travellers on a delayed British Airways flights from Singapore to London would be protected by EU261, since BA is a European airline and the flight is headed to an EU member state.
EU261 European flight compensation: flight delays
The amount of compensation you could be entitled to will depend on the distance of the flight and how late you disembarked after the scheduled arrival time.
The standard way to calculate a delay is to note what time the aeroplane doors have opened for disembarking – if that’s more than three hours after the scheduled time, you could have a claim.
- Flights under 1,500km: you can claim €250 (A$395) for a delay of two hours or more
- Intra-EU flights over 1,500km: look to €400 (A$633) for a delay of three hours or more
- Non-EU flights 1,501km to 3,499km: as above
- Non-EU flights over 3,500km: expect compensation of €600 (A$950) from a delay of four hours or more – this includes flights from Europe back to Australia either direct, through the Middle East, or Asia.
Use a tool like Great Circle Mapper to confirm the distance between two airports – you’ll just need the three-letter airport codes.
In addition to those compensation amounts, airlines also need to cover reasonable costs associated with the delay, such as accommodation, transport, communication and food/water.
You’re entitled to ask for a refund of affected segments or seek re-routing if needed and still be able to claim compensation.
Only delays caused by ‘extraordinary events’ such as severe weather and air traffic control strikes can be exempted from compensation, as they aren’t the airlines’ fault. Regardless of the cause, they still have a 'duty of care' to look after you.
EU261 European flight compensation: being bumped
If any flight which falls under the EU261 is overbooked and, as a result, you are offloaded – also called 'denied boarding' – the same compensation rates apply, based on the flight's distance.
However, EU261 doesn't apply if you volunteer your seat and choose to be oflloaded (not of course if you simply miss the flight).
EU261 European flight compensation: flight cancellations
The rules are slightly different if your flights are cancelled entirely, and you are re-routed to a different connection which sees you departing earlier than before, or arriving much later than originally booked.
- More than 14 days before the flight: No compensation for any cancellations or re-routing, but you are entitled to a full refund or different re-routing if desired.
- 7 to 14 days before the flight: Compensation if you depart earlier than planned by at least two hours, or arrive later than planned by at least four hours.
- With 7 days of the flight: Compensation if you depart earlier than planned by at least one hour, or arrive later than planned by at least two hours.
If you’re eligible for compensation from above, the amounts you could be entitled to depend on the length of the delay at your final destination after re-routing, as follows.
- Flights under 1,500km: €125 (A$197) with a delay under two hours or €250 (A$395) over two hours
- Intra-EU flights over 1,500km: €200 (A$316) with a delay under three hours or €400 (A$633) over three hours
- Non-EU flights 1,501km to 3,499km: As above
- Non-EU flights over 3,500km: €300 (A$475) with a delay under four hours or €600 (A$950) over four hours
EU261 European flight compensation: lodging your claim
In an ideal world, an affected airline will notify you of your rights during an incident, and you can claim the compensation amount before you leave the airport.
Unsurprisingly, this is rarely the case, so make sure you hold onto your boarding passes and try to get some documentation from the airline confirming the delay/cancellation/denial of boarding (they are required by law to notify you of your rights in writing at the airport, during these events).
All claims need to be directed the operating airline in question, either by mail or email. It’s easy enough to find a template letter online, but there’s also the option of going through a ‘no-win, no-fee’ intermediary if you don’t have the time to claim.
A typical claim letter should include:
- All passenger details
- Your affected flight details, including booking reference number
- State that you are claiming compensation according to Article 7, Regulation (EC) No. 261/2004
- State the reasons for your claim, including what happened and how long you were delayed for
- Reaffirm that the delay was not caused by extraordinary circumstances or an ‘act of God’
- The amount of compensation you are seeking, in line with the guidelines above
- Your payment details, and a reasonable deadline for when you want a response by
How each airline approaches the situation will differ. In less-than-ideal scenarios, some may offer you travel vouchers less than what you are entitled to, others may continue to cite ‘extraordinary circumstances’ or even ignore your letter outright.
In those cases, it might be easier to try again through one of many law firms that accept EU261 cases. Just remember that taking any voucher or negotiated offer from the airline, whether at the airport or afterwards, will waive your rights to compensation (but not the airline’s duty of care to you).
When Qantas is affected by a EU261-enforceable delay, it will usually notify passengers and send out a claim sheet to fill in.
How will ‘Brexit’ affect EU261 European flight compensation?
The short answer is that like much to do with Britain's imminent departure from the EU, no one knows for sure.
The worst-case scenario is that flights to and from the UK would no longer be covered by EU261 after the separation date and airlines would no longer be required to compensate you by law.
With the exit date of Friday 29 March 2019 looming closer, we’ll keep you updated when we learn more of any changes to the legislation that would affect readers of Australian Business Traveller.