A delayed flight is usually annoying and a cause for grief. Nevertheless, the compensation that you get thanks to the EU Passenger Rights Regulation is very generous, being between €250 and €600, regardless of how much your flight cost!
Table of contents
- Canceled or Delayed?
- Rights for a Cancellation
- Rights for a Delayed Flight
- Assistance at the Airport
- How do I Make the Airline Respect my Rights?
- When am I not Entitled to a Compensation?
- FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions
We do not give official legal advice and do not replace lawyers. We only try to give you an overview of your rights as a passenger and tried to add sources to all our statements.
The basis for all of this is the Regulation 261/2004 of the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, made on February 11th, 2004. It is valid in the entire European Economic Area (EU, Norway, and Iceland), Switzerland, and even post-Brexit UK.
Canceled or Delayed?
First, it is important to make a distinction between canceled flights and delayed flights.
Your flight was canceled if your original flight will not take place. An indicator of this is a changed flight number or route.
Source 1: Article 2 Definitions Letter l
Your flight is delayed if you take off hours later than planned, without the flight number or route having changed.
i.e. If your flight number, airline, or route have changed, it should be a canceled flight.
Rights for a Cancellation
If your flight got cancelled, you don’t only have a right to be compensated, but can also select one of the following services:
- Complete refund of your ticket price
- Flight back to your point of origin at the earliest possible time
- Alternative transportation to your destination
- Taking a later flight, at a later date, at your convenience
Source 1: Article 8 Right to reimbursement or re-routing
Additionally, the airline has to pay you a compensation, if their alternative flight gets you to your destination with a delay of min. 2-4 hours, depending on the distance:
- €250 when under 1,500 km and over 2 hours
- €200 between 1,500 km – 3,500 km and less than 3 hours
- €400 between 1,500 km – 3,500 km and more than 3 hours
- €300 when over 3,500 km and less than 4 hours
- €600 when over 3,500 km and more than 4 hours
Source 1: Article 7 Right to compensation
There are, however, some exceptions, where the airline does not have to pay you a compensation. This is the case when the airline informs you with enough anticipation or rebooks you onto a flight, which gets you to your destination with a small delay:
- It informs you about the cancellation at least two weeks before departure. All other services, such as alternative transportation to your destination, still have to be granted.
- Between two weeks and max. one week before departure, you’re offered alternative transportation that…
- doesn’t leave your city of origin earlier than two hours before your scheduled departure time and
- you reach your destination max. four hours after your scheduled time of arrival.
- You’re informed about the cancellation less than seven days before departure (i.e. also at the airport) and are offered alternative transportation to your destination that…
- doesn’t leave earlier than one hour before your scheduled time of departure and
- you reach your destination max. two hours after the scheduled time of arrival.
Source 1: Article 5 Section 1 Letter c)
It is also important to know that you’re entitled to services such as alternative transportation to your destination, regardless if the reason is an extraordinary circumstance or not!
Rights for a Delayed Flight
The EU’s passenger rights regulation actually doesn’t provide for any compensation for a delayed flight. The airlines only need to offer assistance. In 2009, however, the European Court decided, that a delay of three or more hours is to be treated as a cancellation.
Here’s an excerpt of the ruling of the European Court:
Articles 5, 6 and 7 of Regulation No 261/2004 must be interpreted as meaning that passengers whose flights are delayed may be treated, for the purposes of the application of the right to compensation, as passengers whose flights are cancelled and they may thus rely on the right to compensation laid down in Article 7 of the regulation where they suffer, on account of a flight delay, a loss of time equal to or in excess of three hours, […]Ruling of the European Court on November 19th, 2009
That means that, no matter how long the flight is, you are entitled to compensation for a delay of min. 3 hours. The amount of the compensation, however, does highly depend on the distance of your flight:
- €250 for under 1,500 km
- €400 over 1,500 km, within the EU
- €400 between 1,500 km and 3,500 km
- €600 for over 3.500 km
Can be reduced to €300 when delayed by less than 4 hours, like with cancellations.
Source: Frankfurt District Court Ruling on 21.10.2014 (Az.: 31 C 1623/14)
5+ Hours: Right to Reimbursement
If it is clear, that there will be a delay of at least 5 hours, you will have the right to renounce the following flights completely, and the airline mus reimburse you the full price of the (not yet taken) flights within 7 days.
Bei einer abzusehende Verspätung von mindestens 5 Stunden, könnt ihr von dem Beförderungsvertrag komplett zurücktreten und die Fluggesellschaft muss euch binnen 7 Tagen den vollständigen Reisepreis (für die nicht zurückgelegten Flüge) erstatten.
If you are stranded on a layover airport, you can additionally request a flight back to your point of origin, at the earliest opportunity.
Source 1: Article 6 Delay Section 1 Letter c) Section 3
Assistance at the Airport
If there’s a delay or cancellation, the airline has to provide meals and drinks, as well as two free phone calls, fax, or emails.
The point at which they have to offer this again depends on the flight distance and hours of delay:
- Up to 1,500 km: from 2 hours
- Between 1,500 and 3,500 km: from 3 hours
- More than 3.500 km: from 4 hours
Source 1 Article 6 Delay Section 1
Next Flight on the Next day? Hotel!
If the airline rebooks you onto a flight on the next day, or if entire flight gets rescheduled to the next day, you’re entitled to a hotel room and to transportation between the airport and the hotel.
The airline also has to provide dinner. That’s why you’ll usually get a voucher for a meal, which you can then redeem in the hotel.
Source 1: Article 6 Delay Section 1
How do I Make the Airline Respect my Rights?
The difficult part is getting your money. Sadly, the regulation does not define Acts of God/force majeure, leading to many airline using that as an excuse. This is why you often need to sue the airline.
When am I not Entitled to a Compensation?
Sadly, there are some situations, where the airline does not need to pay a compensation:
You will not be compensated for your time if the delay is not the airline’s fault, and if the airline did everything it could to provide their flights as scheduled.
“An operating air carrier shall not be obliged to paycompensation in accordance with Article 7, if it can prove that the cancellation is caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken.”Regulation (EG) 261/2004 on February 11th, 2004 Article 5 Cancellation Section 3
Sadly, the term “extraordinary circumstances” is not defined in the regulation, and is therefore the airlines’ standard excuse for everything.
Extraordinary circumstances could, for instance, be:
- very bad weather (sudden snowfall -> entire flight operations of an airport are stopped)
- a technical problem, caused by an external source (e.g. bird strike) and not through maintainance.
- an unplanned strike (as long as the delay/cancellation can be clearly linked to the strike. E.g. a completely modified schedule due to the strike)
Especially technical problems are a very common cause which the airlines claim to be an extraordinary circumstance. The European Court, however, already stated in 2008, that a technical problem isn’t necessarily an extraordinary circumstance:
“[…] a technical problem in an aircraft which leads to the cancellation of a flight is not covered by the concept of ‘extraordinary circumstances’ within the meaning of that provision, unless that problem stems from events which, by their nature or origin, are not inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier concerned and are beyond its actual control […]”EuGH, Ruling on 22.12.2008 – C‑549/07
Even if the airline performed all required maintenance checks:
” The fact that an air carrier has complied with the minimum rules on maintenance of an aircraft cannot in itself suffice to establish that that carrier has taken ‘all reasonable measures’ within the meaning of Article 5(3) of Regulation No 261/2004 and, therefore, to relieve that carrier of its obligation to pay compensation provided for by Articles 5(1)(c) and 7(1) of that regulation.”EuGH, Ruling on 22.12.2008 – C‑549/07
A counterexample: If a screw of a different airplane gets loose and then damages your plane, you will not get compensation. The screw does not belong to your plane and is therefore considered to be an outside factor. Source: LG Darmstadt, 23.7.2014 – 7 S 126/13
The entire issue is sadly very complicated due to the lack of a definition. That’s why we recommend getting the advice of a lawyer if the airline refuses your request.
Regardless of the reason for the delay or cancellation, the airline has to provide assistance (drinks, meals, and a hotel).
Flights Departing From a non-EU Country, Operated by a non-EU Airline
The Passenger Rights Regulation does not apply to delayed flights by a non-EU airline that depart from a non-EU country, even if it is flying into the EU.
But: If a non-EU airline flies from the EU into a non-EU country, you will be entitled to compensation according to the EU’s Passenger Rights Regulation.
- American Airlines flight from the USA to Spain: No compensation has to be paid
- American Airlines flight from Spain to the USA: A compensation has to be paid
Soure 1: Article 3 Scope Section 1
Helicopter / Zeppelin / Balloon Flights
Regulation 261/2004 states in Article 3 Scope, Section 4, that it only applies to passengers transported by motorized fixed wing aircraft:
This Regulation shall only apply to passengers transported by motorised fixed wing aircraft.Regulation (EG) 261/2004 Article 3 Scope Section 4
That means that you won’t receive compensation and have no rights when flying with a helicopter, hot air balloon, or zeppelin.
FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions
As the Passenger Rights Regulation is very complex, there usually are many questions. Here, we try to answer the most important ones:
The distance is the shortest possible distance, the so-called Great Circle distance.
If your flight is a connecting flight from A to C via B, the distance that counts is always the distance between A and destination C. Detours for layovers, as from A to B and from B to C are not considered.
This has been decided by the regional court of Landshut (Az.: 13 S 2291/15). In that case, the plaintiff had flown from Rome to Munich via Amsterdam. The entire trip from Rome to Amsterdam, and then to Munich, would have been over 1,500 km long, but the direct distance between Rome and Amsterdam was only 730 km.
It is always the delayed time of arrival at the final destination of the trip, and not the delay at the departure. The arrival time is defined as the time at which the doors are opened at the destination’s airport.
That depends on the specific country that you’re flying from/to. In Germany, you can make a claim for 3 years, until the end of the calendar year. The Montreal Convention (article 35 Limitation of Actions Section 1 states a two-year period.
When a flight has various flight numbers from different airlines, it is called a codeshare flight. If you have a delay or cancellation on one of these flights, the operating carrier is responsible. You’ll often find the sentence “operated by …” on your ticket.
This can be important if you are booked on a flight that is operated by a non-EU airline. That flight might be sold as a codeshare flight with a flight number belonging to an EU-airline.
Example: Your ticket’s flight number is LH9554 (LH = Lufthansa) but the operating airline is United Airlines, and thus a non-EU airline. If you now have a delay on a flight from Houston to Frankfurt, you won’t get compensation.
Source: Ruling on 26.11.2009 – Xa ZR 132/08
The time of arrival is not the time at which you landed on the runway, but the time at which the first door is opened for the passengers to exit the plane.
Source: Ruling on 4.09.2014 – C‑452/13
It sometimes happens, that a flight is rescheduled to a new time that is many hours before the original time of departure. The EU Regulation sadly only states delayed arrivals at the destination. A Ruling from the German Federal Court (X ZR 59/14) has claimed that rescheduling to an earlier time is to be treated as a cancellation. The sued airline then paid the claimed compensation (€400 compensation for a flight from Dusseldorf to Fuerteventura).
Yes, the UK has claimed to convert all applicable EU-laws into UK law. Nevertheless, it is now only up to UK legislators to decide if they want to keep these laws in place. i.e. the UK could drop these regulations at any time.
If the EU and the UK do not negotiate a deal, however, EU passengers will no longer be protected on flights departing the UK, as the UK is no longer part of the EU.
What About Award Flights?
You’ll also get a compensation. This is even specifically mentioned in the EU’s Passenger Rights Regulation:
[…]Regulation (EG) 261/2004 on February 11th 2004 Article 3 Scope Section 3
However, it shall apply to passengers having tickets issued under a frequent flyer programme or other commercial programme by an air carrier or tour operator.
What About an Employee Discount (PEP…)?
Reduced fares, e.g. for employees, that are not available to the public, are sadly exempt from regulation 261:
This Regulation shall not apply to passengers travelling free of charge or at a reduced fare not available directly or indirectly to the public.Regulation (EG) 261/2004 on February 11th 2004 Article 3 Scope Section 3
What About a Package Holiday?
If you’re on a package holiday, you can still make a claim. This is even specifically mentioned in regulation 261/2004:
Since the distinction between scheduled and non-scheduled air services is weakening, such protection should apply to passengers not only on scheduled but also on non-scheduled flights, including those forming part of package tours.Regulation (EG) 261/2004 on February 11th 2004 Section 5
You cannot, however, request a compensation if the package holiday was cancelled due to other reasons:
This Regulation shall not apply in cases where a package tour is cancelled for reasons other than cancellation of the flight.Regulation (EG) 261/2004 on February 11th 2004 Article 3 Scope Section 6
Delay on a Connecting Flight: Which Distance Counts?
For connecting flights, the distance that counts is always the distance between origin and destination. Even if you only have a delay on one segment of a connecting flight, the decisive factor is the delay at your final destination. (LG Frankfurt am Main, Ruling on February 21st, 2019, 2-24 S 195/18).
Example #1: Flight Munich – Paris – Lima, Peru. Delay on Paris-Lima segment –> Compensation of €600 (total distance over 3,500km)
Example #2: Flight Lima, Peru – Paris – Munich. Delay on Paris-Munich segment. Lima-Paris was punctual –> Compensation of €600 (total distance over 3,500km)
The distance between origin and destination is measured as the great-circle distance, without considering layover airports or the actual flight route. (EuGH, ruling on September 7th, 2017, C-559/16).
Missed Connecting Flight due to a Delay
If you missed your connecting flight within the EU due to a delay of your feeder flight, you’ll also get a compensation, if you reach your final destination with a delay of at least three hours.
Here’s a ruling by the European Court:
[…] must be interpreted as meaning that compensation is payable, on the basis of that article, to a passenger on directly connecting flights who has been delayed at departure for a period below the limits specified in Article 6 of that regulation, but has arrived at the final destination at least three hours later than the scheduled arrival time, given that the compensation in question is not conditional upon there having been a delay at departure and, thus, upon the conditions set out in Article 6 having been met.Ruling of the European Court on 26.02.2013, C-11/11
It is important that all flights were booked on a single ticket. If airline A caused you to miss airline B’s connecting flight and you reach your final destinations with a delay of over 3 hours, you have to claim the compensation from airline A.
Delay with a non-EU Connecting Flight
If you booked a trip with a layover in, e.g. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, …, and the connecting flight gets delayed or even cancelled, you still are entitled to a compensation. This was decided by the European Court in May 2018. According to that ruling, a booking with various layovers, incl. change of aircraft, is to be seen as a flight with connecting flights, and so the delay at the final destination is decisive:
[…] must be interpreted as meaning that the regulation applies to a passenger transport effected under a single booking and comprising, between its departure from an airport situated in the territory of a Member State and its arrival at an airport situated in the territory of a third State, a scheduled stopover outside the European Union with a change of aircraft.Ruling EuGH Az. C-537/17
Up until that high ruling, the ruling of the German federal court had been different:
The compensation claim is not valid, as the regulation is not applicable. The delay occurred on the connecting flight, that the plaintiff boarded in a country that is not a member of the European Union.Pressemitteilung des Bundesgerichtshof Nr. 190/2012
Even if you have a layover outside of Europe and then continue your trip onboard a non-EU airline and your connecting flight is delayed, you’re entitled to the EU’s passenger rights. The EU-airline that operated the first flight is then accountable. The only condition is that the connecting flight be operated with a codeshare flight number of the EU-airline. This was confirmed by the European Court.
[…] operated, under a code-share agreement, by a carrier established in a non-Member State, may bring his or her action for compensation under that regulation against the Community air carrier that performed the first flightRuling EuGH Az. C-502/18
Missed a Separately Booked Connecting Flight?
If you booked your connecting flight separately from the rest of your trip and miss the connecting flight due to a delay of your previous flight, you’re only entitled to the usual compensation (from 3 hours onward). The costs for a new connecting flight are not separately covered.
To ensure that you’re not stuck with the costs when missing a connecting flight, you should make sure that all your flights are booked on a single ticket. In that case, the airline has to rebook you onto the next available flight, free of charge.
Feel free to leave a comment with questions or suggestions. You can also leave a report on how the airline reacted to your claim and if you received your compensation.
We cannot provide legal advice. Please contact a lawyer for that.
We’ll gladly answer your questions, but only based on our experiences. That means: We’re not necessarily always right!
We also expect you to first have read this article thoroughly and also have read the frequently asked questions. If would also be helpful if you explicitly state which section your question concerns.