Claiming Compensation for a Delayed, Overbooked, or Cancelled Flight

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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.

delayed flight

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:

  • Refreshments
  • Food
  • 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

Flight Delays

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.

Flight Cancellations

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.

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:

Final Thoughts

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.

Claiming Compensation for a Delayed, Overbooked, or Cancelled Flight
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Comments

  • Thenk you1 Great to know that! Do you know if this can be retrospectively taken?

  • Would be nice if the US had specific compensation for delays and cancellations like the EU

  • Hope the US Airlines do a better job.

  • Great bits of information, we used our Credit card to claim back recently and what a life saver that was.

  • Almost worth booking on a EU carrier when you fly into the EU, to trigger EU261 eligibility

  • would be nice if it was an easy process to do

  • ron_vaughn@hotmail.com says:

    The CSR card saved me from bearing the expense os a so called “traffic delay” that caused my flight (ORD_SYR) to be cancelled. For the first four hours of delay the reason was “mechanical”, but it was changed to “traffic” at 11::15 p.m. All AA did for me was give me a phone number to call to get a discounted hotel booking (I had to pay).

    Not sure if this circumstance qualifies for compensation (gate agent said no, as did CSR), but I am suspicious of the last minute change from “mechanical” to “traffic”. Wasn’t the root cause of the delay the original mechanical problem? And “traffic” at 11:30 p.m. sounds pretty bizarre. AA didn’t even try to book me on an AA flight that left ORD while I was waiting for my original flight.

    Any advice?

  • Interesting article.
    My question is when there is one e-ticket and two flights with two different airlines.
    First flight with some delay (let’s say 30 minutes, so not a lot) which makes you lost the connection with the second flight and so you will be protected on anotther flight and you arrive with several hours of delay.
    You have right to a compensation (theoretically yes)?
    If yes, who should pay: first airline, second airlines, who issued the e-ticked, etc.?

  • In the case of voluntary boarding denial, you could get airline vouchers in huge amounts in North America. Such phenomenon is totally uncommon in Asia and Europe.

    • Yes, I was rather surprised when I encountered voluntary boarding denials outside North America that were not meaningfully incentivized.

  • Michael Skelly says:

    Thanks for sharing this. It is good to know that if I ever get involuntarily bumped there is some compensation available!

  • Michael Skelly says:

    Thanks for sharing this. It is good to know that if I ever get involuntarily bumped there is some compensation available!

  • Steven William Van Meter says:

    This is a game changer. I’ve experienced this before and there is nothing that makes you feel more helpless. This is empowering. Good idea.

  • This is great information, thanks.

  • Thanks for the tips! I am always confused on how to claim this.

  • No AMEX cards… sad.

  • Nice Outline with Links to further info

  • U.S. airlines are the worst when it comes to treating customers right for delays or canceled flight. I find more success writing a note to the airlines after the incident if no compensation was given at airport. One usually receive some miles for the inconvenience.

  • Great resource! Bookmarked for reference!

  • I have tried claiming delay compensations several times, but I got shot down all the time.
    However according to this post, I was entitled to compensation…

    • Seems like the regulators don’t do a great job of penalizing the airlines when they don’t follow the rules. Depending on the jurisdiction for the flight, you might consider filing a complaint with the DOT or other authorities.

    • I’ve received compensation from the airline one time just asking (and they also provided all the adequate assistance) and two other times I had to launch the small claims procedure (and I have not received any assistance at all both times).

  • It would have to apply to all the airlines in the world and in any country.

  • Angie Kowalzek-Adrians says:

    Freebird (getfreebird.com) seems like a great service to utilize. Freebird books you a new ticket after a flight cancellation, significant delay, or missed connection. You don’t pay for the new ticket, only for the service. It’s like insurance, but with a rebooking element so that you aren’t just compensated, you make it to your destination. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ve read good things about it and plan to try it on my next trip.

  • Important and very useful info to handle with various and different types annoying travelling situations. Article to keep,
    hoping not to use, but if it happens, it will be like a security manual.

  • For American Airlines, the app will update you on flight delay changes quicker than gate agents.

  • This is important information. And compensation is better than nothing when having to cope with delays.

  • A few years back, we were waiting to board an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Hong Kong. They asked over the PA for volunteers to be bumped to a later flight offering $800 per passenger. Tempting, but our schedule was tight so we took a pass.

  • I was granted a complementary Freebird coverage for a flight that I booked on my Amex Business platinum. Nothing went wrong, but they sent me emails and text messages at various times during the day to let me know about the progress of my flights. It does seem like a great service and I would love for this to be a free coverage for the Business Platinum if they lose some of the other benefits.

  • Thanks for sharing. I need to bookmark this.

  • Dexter Ohama says:

    What’s fair is fair. It’s not only a business for the airlines, but it’s our lives that matter to. I think it’s fair. I will book mark this, thank you .

  • This is great to know and save! I agree that it’s a lot to sort through. I think that it is worth it to look at AirHelp for trips that might have delays. I don’t know if I would do it on all trips. I’ll have to really read through their web page. Plus, with trying to get back to work, etc. AirHelp would be a huge time saver. If you don’t expect anything and you do get something through them then I think it’s worth the cut.

  • Great information! Thanks for sharing

  • Thanks for sharing. Just have a very bad experience on american airline. After boarding 2 hours, the captain just cancel the flight since he work overtime, and that is the last flight that night. The earliest next flight will be the coming afternoon. I have no choice but cancel the whole trip. Finally AA just give 3500 miles as reimbursement

  • Thanks, this is helpful.

  • EC 261 is such a useful tool to claim compensation! Thanks for the info!

  • Now THIS is a useful post!

  • I love how EU consumers are protected in theory. Yet, in real life airlines do everything in order to make claiming compensation an uphill battle. In my experience Finnair is the worst offender (not counting low-cost carriers of course, such as Ryanair).

  • Looking at the EU regulations, it looks like you are entitled to a telex if you are delayed.

    I am really looking forward to my next delay to see the confusion on the agents face when I ask for my telex to be sent…. do they still exist?

  • No one wants to face these situations, but as inevitably the chance is always lurking. Once it happens, this article is a big help.

  • The US policy is sorely lacking compared to the EU provisions. Still, this is all good information to know. I’ll be bookmarking this post for future reference in the hopes that I never need it.

  • “Contrary to popular belief, for domestic itineraries, airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled.” Ugh isn’t this so true. I wish the US would get on board like Europe, especially with the domestic carriers dropping the ball so often as of late.

  • Good information and a reminder that I need to ask for compensation from my credit card company for an earlier delay this year.

  • Valeria Lopez says:

    Excellent Tips ! This article is a big help ! Thanks!

  • I’ve used Airhelp, and they looked at my various reservations and emailed me that I was entitled to compensation I did not even remember having experienced the delay (upon looking back I did see it though). I sent some details and they did the rest. I think its a great service.

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