Airport chaos in Europe: What are your rights if flights are delayed or cancelled?
Summer is up, tourism is recovering from pandemic years, and people are stuck at chaotic airports. Here are your rights if something goes wrong.
Strikes, a shortage of staff and an excess of travellers after the coronavirus pandemic are just two of the ingredients behind the chaos in many European airports ahead of the main summer holidays.
As people are travelling again, visiting friends and family and taking the holidays that were postponed several times, they have had to face long queues, delays, and even flight cancellations.
The good news is that the European Union has strict regulations protecting consumers, including those buying plane tickets.
If you have faced issues with your flight, here are your rights and how to get compensation, according to EU legislation.
First things first: is my trip covered by the EU legislation?
EU air passenger rights apply to you if your flight is within the EU or Schengen zone, if it arrives in the EU/Schengen zone from outside the bloc and is operated by an EU-based airline, or if it departs from the EU/ Schengen zone.
Additionally, the EU rights apply only if you have not already received benefits (including compensation, re-routing, and assistance from the airline) for this journey under the law of a non-EU country.
What if my flight is from the UK to an EU country?
Since January 1st 2021, the bloc's rules and rights do not apply to cancellations or delays to flights from the UK to the EU or to those passengers denied boarding on these flights if the flight was operated by a non-EU carrier.
However, according to the rules, if your flight arrives in the European Union and is operated by an EU airline, or if you are flying to the UK from an EU country, then you are entitled to the same rights.
The European Union comprises the 27 EU countries plus the French overseas territories of Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Réunion Island, Mayotte, Saint-Martin as well as the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands (but not the Faroe Islands). The rules also apply to flights to and from Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland.
What about return flights?
The EU says: "The outbound and return flights are always considered as two separate flights, even if they were booked as part of one reservation."
It's not uncommon to book with one airline and then the flight to be operated by a different carrier, sometimes a partner line. In this case, all compensation requests should be directed to the operator, rather than the company you booked with.
The EU says: "In case of any difficulties only the airline which operates the flight can be held responsible."
This would affect whether you are entitled to compensation if you booked with an EU-based carrier but the flight was actually operated by a non-EU carrier.
What happens if my flight is cancelled?
In case of cancellation, you have the right to choose between getting your money back, getting the next available flight, or changing the booking completely for a later date. You are also entitled to assistance free of charge, including refreshments, food, accommodation (if you are rebooked to travel the next day), transport, and communication (two telephone calls, for example). This is regardless of the reasons for cancellation.
If you were informed of the cancellation less than 14 days before the scheduled departure date, you also have a right to compensation, except if the cancellation was due to "extraordinary circumstances" (see below for explanation of "extraordinary circumstances".
The table below from the Europa.eu website shows the amount of compensation you are entitled to in the case of cancellations within 14 days of departure.
Often the airlines might not make this clear to you
What if my flight was delayed?
Your rights and compensation will depend on the duration of the delay and the distance of the flight.
If an airline expects that your flight will be delayed beyond the scheduled departure time, you are entitled to meals and refreshments in proportion to the waiting time. It starts at two hours for shorter flights (distance of 1,500 km or less), three hours or more for longer flights and a delay of four hours for all other flights.
You should make yourself known to the airline so that they can provide you with the necessary vouchers and information.
If you arrived at your final destination with a delay of more than three hours, you are entitled to compensation unless the delay was due to extraordinary circumstances.
The compensation will be €250 for short flights, €400 for longer flights and up to €600 for flights covering more than 3,500 kilometres.
What are 'extraordinary circumstances'?
It can get tricky to understand your rights when most of the things you are entitled to depend on whether or not the cancellations and delays were due to extraordinary circumstances.
According to the EU, examples of events defined as extraordinary circumstances are "air traffic management decisions, political instability, adverse weather conditions and security risks".
However, most technical problems which come to light during maintenance are not considered extraordinary circumstances, and staff shortages would also usually not be classed as extraordinary circumstances - but it remains to be seen if widespread shortages around Europe over the summer achieve this classification.
Still, the airline needs to prove that the circumstance caused the delay or cancellation and that delays or cancellations couldn't have been avoided "even if all reasonable measures had been taken".
Workers' strikes - a pretty regular occurrence in certain countries (looking at you, France) - may be considered extraordinary circumstances".
So passengers won't normally be eligible for compensation.
The website flightright.com writes: "In this case (strikes) airlines are under no obligation to pay out compensation to customers. Strikes, whether they be carried out by the airport staff or the airline staff, fall under this category and as such passengers should not expect to have a valid claim."
However there are some exceptions.
For example "if your flight does not fall within the immediate strike period, but is cancelled due to the impact of the strike, it is worth checking your entitlement to compensation," explains flightright.com.
"For example: if all flights are taking off and landing on schedule again after the strike, but you are denied boarding, then there is a good chance that the airline will have given your seat to a passenger who was directly affected by the strike. This means that the airline would be denying you the right to board against your will, which could entitle you to compensation."
If the airline does not provide a satisfactory explanation, you can contact your national authority for further assistance.
My luggage was lost, damaged or delayed.
Unless the damage was caused by an inherent defect in the baggage itself, the airline is liable. You have the right to compensation up to approximately € 1,300.
"If you want to file a claim for lost or damaged luggage, you should do it in writing to the airline within 7 days, or within 21 days of receiving your luggage if it was delayed. There is no standard EU-wide form.", the EU site adds.
What other rights do I have?
If you were denied boarding because your flight was overbooked, you have the right to choose between reimbursement, going on the next flight or rebooking the journey at a later date. You are also entitled to compensation and assistance from the airline.
In case you are downgraded, you are entitled to reimbursement of a percentage of your ticket price, depending on flight distance, and reaching 75 per cent.
Where should I complain?
Your first point of contact should be the airline itself. However, if you are not satisfied with their response, you can contact your country's European Consumer Centre for cross-border flights or a national consumer centre for domestic trips.
If you think you're liable for compensation from your airline, you can file an official EU airline complaint form.
Other ways to claim compensation
Even if you are not entitled to compensation from the airline, there might be other ways to get refunds and money in case of flight cancellation and delays.
Besides using private travel insurance, many credit and debit card companies and banks offer automatic travel insurance if you purchased a ticket with them. In some cases, you might receive cash payment for delays and cancellations even when they were due to "exceptional circumstances".