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Flight delays and cancellations can be expensive and stressful. Fortunately, there are some consumer protections in place to make sure you don’t get stuck with the bill when irregular operations force you to change your plans. But there are some big differences in the compensation offered and how bad the situation needs to be before you become eligible for compensation. If you know your rights, you can avoid worrying about extra, out-of-pocket costs and make sure you extract the full compensation to which you’re entitled.
In this post, we break down the rules and regulations for U.S. and E.U. flights.
When Are You Entitled to Compensation From an Airline?
Your right to airline compensation changes depending on the airline you fly, your departure and destination, and whether you are flying domestic or international. In light of the different rules for each country and carrier, we’ve grouped rules by region and the type of flight.
Claiming Compensation on US Domestic Carriers and Flights
Passengers in the US have no blanket protection against delayed or canceled flights like their counterparts in Europe. The US Department of Transport regulations state:
“Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport; there are no federal requirements.”
“Contrary to popular belief, for domestic itineraries, airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled.”
Having said that, you can politely ask airlines to help with food, transport, and accommodation, but it is up to the airline whether they help out. Here's our post on requesting voluntary compensation from hotels and airlines. The DOT regulations do cover passengers for tarmac delays of three hours or more, lost or delayed luggage, and if you get (involuntarily) bumped from a flight due to overbooking.
- Tarmac delays – Aircraft cannot remain on the tarmac for over three hours unless the pilot determines it’s unsafe to disembark passengers, or air traffic control advises the plane may not return to the gate.
- Involuntary denied – While the rate of involuntary bumping is down to 1/10,000 passengers on domestic flights, with 700 million domestic passengers carried last year, that adds up to tens of thousands of passengers left stranded at the gate. If you are involuntarily bumped from a domestic flight you’re entitled to:
- 0 to 1-hour arrival delay: No compensation
- 1 to 2-hour arrival delay: 200% of one-way fare (but no more than $675)
- Over 2-hour arrival delay: 400% of one-way fare (but no more than $1,350)
Claim Compensation on International Flights from the US
U.S. laws are the same for International flights with no federal requirements for delayed or canceled flights leaving the U.S. The same rules covering domestic flights apply to international ones with different time and compensation limits.
- Tarmac delays – Aircraft cannot remain on the tarmac for more than four hours unless the pilot determines it’s unsafe to disembark passengers, or air traffic control advises the plane may not return to the gate.
- Involuntary denied boarding – International passengers can claim the following compensation if they get bumped from a flight due to overbooking.
- 0 to 1-hour arrival delay: No compensation
- 1 to 4-hour arrival delay: 200% of one-way fare (but no more than $675)
- Over 4-hour arrival delay: 400% of one-way fare (but no more than $1,350)
While the U.S. government isn't particularly strong on passenger protections, international flights leaving the U.S. are covered by the Montreal Convention (plain English overview), which offers a badly needed extra layer of coverage. The Montreal Convention covers passengers flying between 136 member countries (including the U.S.) against losses or damages caused by delayed or canceled flights and lost or delayed luggage. If the only consequence of a flight delay or cancellation is that it's inconvenient, that on its own will not be enough to enact the Montreal Convention; there must be losses from items such as pre-booked accommodation, connecting flights, car rentals or the like.
The compensation amount claimable under the Montreal Convention is not issued in $, £, or €, rather it’s issued in Special Drawing Rights (SDR), a currency issued by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). At the time of writing, 1 SDR is worth US$1.38. Here's the IMF's page tracking the current value of SDR. If the airline is found liable for the loss or damage, passengers can claim up to 4,694 SDR, or $6,477. You can find the fine print on the Montreal Convention on the IATA website.
Note: The Montreal Convention applies to all international flights between member countries, but not within those countries unless the flight has a stopover in another country en-route, so it won't cover domestic flights.
Claim Compensation on Flights Departing or Within the EU
European Union legislation (EC261) covers flights between EU member countries, within member countries, departing member countries, and flights on EU licensed carriers flying into the EU. Flights must be delayed by a minimum of three hours for compensation to kick in, and the affected itinerary falls under a single reservation.
Causes for delays or cancellations can’t involve extraordinary circumstances such as severe weather events, airline flight staff striking, medical emergencies, war, and a whole host of things outside the airline’s control. In short, if the airline is at fault, it's highly likely you qualify for compensation.
In Europe, airlines are also obliged to take care of you while you wait for passage on another aircraft, with the following stipulated:
- Accommodation (if you are rebooked to travel the next day)
- Transport to your accommodation and return to the airport
- 2 telephone calls, telex, fax messages or emails
Compensation for delays and involuntarily denied boarding is based on the distance flown and the origin of the flight.
- €250 – 1,500 km or less
- €400 – 1,500+ km within the EU and all other flights between 1,500 & 3,500 km
- €600 – 3,500+ km
If the carrier offers you re-routing and you reach your final destination with a delay of 2, 3, or 4 hours, the compensation may be reduced by 50%. You can find all the relevant information on claiming compensation on Europa.eu, or download the claim form directly.
Compensation for flight cancellations is more complicated still. It is based on when you are notified of the cancellation, if the airline re-routes you on a different flight, and what time you arrive at your destination. The distances and compensation amounts remain the same, but when you’re notified of the change, and when you arrive at your destination are also factored into the re-routing requirements. You won't receive compensation if you are:
- Notified more than 14 days in advance
- Notified between 2 weeks and 7 days before scheduled departure and re-routing allows you to depart no more than 2 hours before the original departure and reach final destination less than 4 hours after the originally scheduled time of arrival
- Notified less than 7 days before the scheduled departure re-routing allows you to depart no more than 1 hour before the original departure and reach your final destination less than 2 hours after the originally scheduled time of arrival.
Confused yet? It’s a lot to take in. If you're looking for more details, this post does a great job summarizing EU compensation rules. If you're trying to understand your rights in a specific travel situation, the Europa.eu site offers an interactive survey to guide you to the relevant information.
Save Time with AirHelp (For a Fee)
The different rules and regulations for each region and carrier are enough to give you a headache at the best of times. If you can’t wrap your head around the legislation or you don’t have the time available to go through the process, you can hand over all the details to AirHelp, and have them do all the heavy lifting.
They will check whether your delay or cancellation warrants compensation, contact the airline directly on your behalf, negotiate a settlement, and if necessary, take the airline to court! AirHelp's Service Fee is 25% of the settlement they reach with the airline, the service is straightforward, and if they don’t win, you don’t pay.
Take Advantage of the Travel Insurance Offered by Your Credit Card
In recent months, we’ve seen many of the top rewards cards eliminate insurance benefits covering delays, cancellations and issues with luggage. However, if you pay for your flight (or the taxes and fees on an award ticket) with the right card, you can avoid needing to rely on the mandatory compensation detailed in this post.
- Guide to Trip Interruption & Cancellation Insurance
- Guide to Trip Delay Insurance
- Guide to Delayed and Lost Luggage Insurance
You'll notice Chase has emerged as the top card issuer for travel coverage. Here are a few of our favorite cards to use to pay for flights:
Knowing when to claim compensation from an airline is an essential part of the rewards travel puzzle. If the worst you suffered was a late arrival, a changed flight, and a little inconvenience then trying to claim compensation may not be in your best interest and is unlikely to get through. If you suffered financial losses due to a delayed or canceled flight, and the airline is squarely in the wrong, you probably have a valid basis for a claim.
If you have questions, we'll do our best to help in the comments, but we may not be able to respond to every unique situation. For white-glove service, we recommend hiring AirHelp to facilitate your claim.
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