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EU261 compensation: What you need to know before your next trip to Europe

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Stephanie Patterson

Travel columnist

Have you heard of the EU261? Unfortunately, many airline passengers haven’t. As a result, these unaware travelers miss out on hundreds of dollars in compensation owed to them during a flight delay or cancellation.

So what exactly is EU261, and who does it pertain to? It’s complicated, but here’s everything you need to know if you’re planning to travel to, from, or within Europe.

So what is the EU261?

The EU261 secured important air passenger rights when it was enacted by the European Parliament in 2004.  This regulation recognizes that flight cancellations and delays create mental, financial, and physical hardships for passengers, and it holds the airlines accountable. 

The formation of EU261 is a step toward making air travel more pleasant by putting passengers in a position of importance.

But passengers still need to make an effort to receive compensation and care since the airlines are sometimes reluctant to follow through on these regulations. Here’s how to determine if your flight delay or cancellation qualifies you compensation.

What countries are bound by the EU261?

There are 27 European Union nations: 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 rules also apply to flights to and from Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland.

Flights to and from Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Réunion Island, Mayotte, Saint-Martin (French Antilles), the Azores, Madeira, and the Canary Islands (but not the Faroe Islands) are covered as well.

The UK also complies with the EU261.

Formula for EU261 compensation

  • All EU and non-EU airlines with flights that originate in a European Union country regardless of destination
  • Flights on EU airlines only that terminate in the European Union 
  • Connecting flights on EU airlines that originate or terminate in the European Union

The EU261 applies to operating air carriers only. For example, you purchased your tickets from Lufthansa, an EU airline, for a flight to Europe from the United States. However, the operating air carrier is its codeshare partner, United Airlines. Since the flight is on a non-EU carrier and is terminating in the EU, it would not be covered under EU261. If your flight was operated by Lufthansa, regardless of whether you purchased your ticket from United Airlines or Lufthansa, your flight would qualify under EU261.

Flight problems covered under EU261 compensation

  • Flight delays 
  • Cancellations 
  • Denied boarding
  • Downgraded to a lower class of service

If you are notified of a flight cancellation or a change in your itinerary 14 or more days in advance, EU261 does not apply.

Extraordinary circumstances: exclusions from EU261 compensation

The EU261 provides a loophole for airlines to avoid paying compensation. If the delay or cancellation is caused by extraordinary circumstances then a passenger’s claim can be denied. Unfortunately, all of the extraordinary circumstances covered are not explicitly defined in the EU261. But some of the circumstances that are generally accepted as extraordinary (out of the airline’s control) include weather problems, political or civil unrest, security risks, flight safety shortcomings, air traffic control decisions, and strikes.

Extraordinary circumstances should be deemed to exist where the impact of an air traffic management decision in relation to a particular aircraft on a particular day gives rise to a long delay, an overnight delay, or the cancellation of one or more flights by that aircraft even though all reasonable measures had been taken by the air carrier concerned to avoid the delays or cancellations.

Excerpt from the EU261

Mechanical/technical problems or an overbooked flight are not considered extraordinary circumstances.

What type of flight delays does this regulation cover?

Compensation is available when a flight is delayed beyond its scheduled departure time. Extraordinary circumstances are the exception.

  • Delays of two hours:  flights of 1,500 km or less
  • Delays of three hours or more: intra-EU flights of more than 1,500 km and flights between 1,500 and 3,500 km
  • Delays of four hours or more: all flights not listed above

Passengers on flights delayed for two or more hours at departure must receive care from the airline. Care consists of meals and refreshments. The airline must provide transportation and overnight accommodations if required.

Delays of five hours or more:

You can request reimbursement of your airfare or the option to re-route. The airline must reimburse you within seven days for either the full amount of the ticket or for the leg of the journey not used. You should request a refund if your trip is no longer viable. 

When you choose to request a refund on a connecting flight, the airline must put you on a flight back to the original departure airport as soon as possible.

The airline should put you in the same class of service on the first available flight when you choose to re-route. You can also opt to fly out later on a date of your choosing if seats are available.

If the airline re-routes you to an airport in the same city or region of the original itinerary, it is responsible for ground transportation costs for getting you back to the original airport or a destination of your choice.

What are your rights after a canceled flight?

  1. You have the right to request a full reimbursement of your airfare.
  2. You can fly out on the next flight if there are seats available.
  3. You can fly out at a later date of your choosing.

You can request EU 261 compensation unless the cause is an extraordinary circumstance.

You will receive meals and refreshments. The airline must provide transportation and overnight accommodations if required.

It is a canceled flight if it does not arrive at the airport listed on the original itinerary. The exception would be if the passenger approves the re-routing or if the new airport is in the same city or region.

Furthermore, a flight is not a cancellation if:

  • Passengers are notified at least 14 days before departure.
  • Passengers are notified seven to 14 days in advance of the departure of a flight change. The new flight must depart no more than two hours prior and arrive within four hours or less of the original flight schedule.
  • Passengers are re-routed on a flight that departs no more than one hour prior and arrives less than two hours after the original flight time. This notification can be less than seven days before departure.

What happens if you’re denied boarding?

When a flight is overbooked, the airline must first ask for volunteers. The volunteer will surrender their ticket in exchange for mutually agreed-on benefits. If there are no volunteers, the airline can then deny boarding to selected passengers.

The airline is to provide passengers with immediate compensation based on the distance of the flight. 

Volunteer passengers or those who are denied boarding have two options. They can request a full refund or get re-routed on another flight that they are satisfied with. Meals and refreshments should be provided while waiting, and they should receive overnight accommodations and transportation to and from the hotel. They should also be provided with two free calls, telex or fax messages, and emails.

What if you get downgraded to a lower class of service?

The airline must refund a percentage of the airfare (listed below) within seven days if a passenger is downgraded to a lower class of service:

  • 30% of the price of the ticket:  flights of 1,500 km or less
  • 50% of the price of the ticket:  intra-EU flights over 1,500 km (with some exceptions) and flights between 1,500 and 3,500 km
  • 75% of the price of the ticket: all other flights not listed above, including the European territory of member states and the French overseas departments.

Passengers should request a confirmation of this refund in writing at check-in or the gate.

EU261 compensation

Monetary compensation is available to passengers for hardships caused by flight cancellations, delays, or denied boarding. The amount is dependent on the distance of the flight and the new arrival time.

The airlines must notify passengers (via a sign at check-in) of their rights in the event of a cancellation, delay, or denied boarding. Passengers must receive a written notice if the event occurs.  

Passengers can request compensation directly from the operating airline by filing an air passenger rights claim with that same airline. The airline must pay the compensation by cash, bank check, or electronic transfer. Vouchers are not allowed unless the passenger signs an acceptance approval form.

EU 261 requires the airlines to pay the compensation immediately to passengers who are denied boarding. If the airline refuses, the passenger should ask the airline to put in writing that they were denied boarding (See: British Airways made a big mistake and denied boarding to me!). This will provide proof when filing the air passenger rights claim with the operating airline.

Monetary compensation is not offered when flight problems are caused by extraordinary circumstances. Again, under EU261, extraordinary circumstances, sometimes called a force majeure, can be weather problems, political or civil unrest, security risks, flight safety shortcomings, air traffic control decisions, and strikes.

Compensation is based on length of flight and arrival time

The distance of the flight is based on the last destination where the cancellation, delay, or denied boarding occurred. 

  • €250 (about $249): flights of 1,500 km or less
  • €400 (about $399): intra-EU flights of more than 1,500 km, and flights between 1,500 and 3,500 km
  • €600 (about $599): all other flights not listed above

Dollar amounts are current conversion rates.

The new arrival time may reduce compensation by 50%:

If the new arrival time on the re-routed flight does not exceed:

  •  two hours for flights of 1,500 km
  •  three hours for intra-EU flights of 1,500 km or flights of 1,500 and 3,500 km
  •  four hours for all other flights

For example, you requested a full refund for your canceled flight of 2500 km. You would then file an air passenger rights claim with the operating airline for monetary compensation of €400. However, your compensation will be reduced by 50% if you choose to re-route on a flight that arrives within three hours or less than the original flight time

How to file an EU261 compensation claim

It is up to the passenger to file a claim for monetary compensation with the operating air carrier. You can submit the claim online. The airline may send passengers the forms to fill out, but don’t count on it. 

Submit your claim as soon as possible. Each European Union country has a set deadline for submission, but it’s best to complete it while the facts are still fresh.

If you have difficulty finding the claim form, search for the air passenger rights EU 261 complaint form on the airline’s website. Contact customer service if you are unable to locate it.

The airline response time could be up to two months. Be persistent and follow up if you do not hear back.

Required documents for submitting claims:

You may need to prove that you have a right to EU 261 compensation. Keep a screenshot of messages from the airline. If possible, ask the representative at the gate to put in writing the reason for the flight delay or cancellation. You will also need your boarding pass, booking code, flight number, and date. Some airlines may ask for the amount of compensation you are requesting (according to EU 261) and details of what went wrong.

If the airline ignores your claim or rejects it, you can file an appeal with the National Enforcement Body of the European Union in the country where the flight departed.

Bottom Line:

The monetary compensation and care the EU261 compels airlines to provide can help cushion the blow of a less-than-pleasant travel experience. But it’s true that airlines don’t always voluntarily issue this reimbursement. If you know you qualify for that compensation and the airline will not respond, send a request for help to the Consumer Rescue team. We’re always here to assist you — and always free of charge. (Stephanie Patterson, Consumer Rescue)

*Before you go: Canada has similar passenger protections for air travelers. Here’s how to find out if a Canadian Airline owes you compensation.

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Stephanie Patterson

Stephanie is a travel columnist at Consumer Rescue. She has authored several books for corporate travelers (available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble) and also publishes an informative website with a focus on promoting smart and safe travel. When Stephanie is not here helping consumers, she's an interior designer who loves to think outside the norm!