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Flight delay, cancellation: Your rights as a passenger

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Have you ever had to reschedule your travel plans due to a flight cancellation or delay? And although it may be poor consolation: An EU law clearly defines the compensation that airlines have to pay in such cases. 

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    Isabelle Näf

    Isabelle Näf is an attorney and expert in the laws concerning contracts, inheritance, families and persons. She gives useful tips about the correct way to proceed if you purchase a defective product or in cases of inheritance.

My flight has been canceled. Am I entitled to a refund for my ticket?

According to the European Flight Compensation Regulation, as an airline passenger you are always entitled to either a refund of your ticket or alternative transportation if the airline cancels your flight.

This canceled flight has cost me time and stress. Am I entitled to some kind of compensation for personal suffering?

If the airline cancels a flight less than two weeks before departure, passengers are entitled to compensation. However, the airline does have the right to cite “extraordinary circumstances” or force majeure.

What are extraordinary circumstances?

These can include: bad weather conditions, bird strikes, terrorist threats, medical emergencies or a strike of airline employees.

Does the COVID-19 pandemic count as an extraordinary circumstance?

The EU Commission has designated the coronavirus crisis as an “extraordinary circumstance.” Despite this, the airline is required to refund the ticket price, provide alternative travel arrangements or offer to rebook the flight for a later date.

How does the airline pay the refund and how long does it have to do so?

If the airline cancels the flight, it is required to refund the ticket price within seven days. Generally the refund is issued using the same form of payment that you used to book the ticket.

Flight Compensation Regulation

According to the Flight Compensation Regulation 261/2004 of the EU, passengers flying with airlines from EU and EFTA countries and with start or destination airport in an EU or EFTA country (Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland) are entitled to compensation of up to 600 euros if they are not transported.

However, this right applies only in the event of short-term cancellations no earlier than two weeks prior to departure and if the airline offers no alternative flight corresponding to the provisions of the EC regulation, article 5, para. 1(c).

What is the compensation based on?

The designated compensation depends on the length of the flight route booked:

  • Flight distance up to 1500 km: 250 euros per passenger
  • Flight distance 1500 to 3500 km: 400 euros per passenger
  • Flight distance over 3500 km (and beyond the EU border): 600 euros per passenger

The airline can reduce the compensation by 50% if the passengers affected are offered a reasonable alternative flight. An alternative flight is considered reasonable for a flight distance 

  • up to 1500 km if the arrival time is no more than 2 hours later
  • from 1500 km to 3500 km with an arrival time no more than 3 hours later 
  • over 3500 km with an arrival time no more than 4 hours later 

than the scheduled arrival time of the flight originally booked.

No compensation is due

  • in case of cancellation between 2 weeks and 7 days prior to the scheduled time of departure if an alternative transportation offer enables departure no more than 2 hours before the scheduled time of departure and arrival at the final destination no more than 4 hours after the scheduled time of arrival;

  • in case of cancellation less than 7 days prior to the scheduled time of departure if an alternative transportation offer enables departure no more than 1 hour before the scheduled time of departure and arrival at the final destination no more than 2 hours after the scheduled time of arrival.

Since the so-called Sturgeon judgment of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in 2009, this compensation rule applies even in the case of delays of more than 3 hours – but only if the flight begins or ends in an EU country. 

If a cancellation or delay occurs due to exceptional circumstances (bad weather conditions, bird strike, technical failure despite sufficient maintenance, the threat of terrorism, medical incidents, strikes, etc.), the airline is not to blame - and passengers have no right to compensation.

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    Free legal advice

    The leaflet Compensation Air Transport shows you what rights and what benefits you should be paid and how to proceed in the event of a flight delay or cancellation. It also contains a sample letter to the airline.

    To myright

Do I have to accept a voucher?

No, you are not required to accept a voucher.

Is the airline permitted to charge me a fee for refunding the ticket?

Airlines generally do not charge a fee. The credit card company may charge a fee for foreign payments. It is also standard in the industry for travel agents, e.g. eDreams, Kiwi, Bravofly, etc., to deduct a processing fee for initiating a refund. This is usually set out in the terms and conditions and is therefore legal.

What are my rights if my flight times are changed?

If there is a significant change in flight times, you are contractually entitled to cancel.

You are entitled to compensation if you were notified of the altered flight time up to seven days before departure and the flight leaves more than one hour earlier or arrives at the destination more than two hours later. The amount of compensation also depends on the flight distance.

  • EUR 250 per passenger for flights of up to 1,500 km that are delayed 3 or more hours
  • EUR 400 per passenger for flights of over 1,500 km within the EU and other flights of between 1,500 and 3,500 km that are delayed 3 or more hours
  • EUR 600 for flights of over 3,500 km outside of the EU that are delayed for 4 or more hours

If a flight is delayed for 5 or more hours, passengers may cancel the flight and request a refund of the ticket price. In this case, however, no additional compensation is owed. 

How to claim your rights

  • Assert your claim for compensation as a result of cancellation, denied boarding or delay directly with the airline.
  • Send the airline your account details and a deadline for transferring the compensation so that the process can be carried out swiftly.
  • Demand repayment of the original fare you paid in the case of cancellation or denied boarding if you were not offered a reasonable alternative flight.
  • If you incur expenses as a result of cancellation, denied boarding or delay exceeding the compensation in accordance with the Flight Compensation Regulation, you can include these in your damage claim. The so-called obligation to minimize loss applies here: Only expenses that are considered reasonable are compensated – stays in a five-star hotel and limousine transfers will not be paid by the airline.

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