Air Passenger Rights Introduction: EC 261 Compensation and Beyond
Millions of air passengers travel each year, but a large number do not realize that there are air passenger rights to protect them while in transit. AirHelp can help you understand your rights, and help you to claim compensation under Europe’s EC 261 regulation.
What Are Air Passenger Rights?
Air passenger rights involve specific laws that support travelers and advocate for some kind of compensation when people face flight disruptions caused by the airlines.
Though the contours of the law vary from country to country, these types of laws are prevalent domestically and internationally (in the US, Europe, and beyond). In essence, if a person travels on an aircraft, they have legal rights.
The problem is that many people are not aware that the law is on their side or even that passenger rights exist. In fact, 85% of EU air passengers do not know their rights and 92% of US air passengers do not know their rights.
Air Passenger Rights and Regulations You Should Know
While it’s true that individual countries abide by their own laws, there are some key features of regional or international laws that serve as powerful tools to air passengers. These include, but are not limited to, EU legislation EC 261, various US laws, and the Montreal Convention.
Certain regulations have a wider reach or prove more advantageous than others. However, it’s best to remember that disrupted flight circumstances can differ significantly, and it’s helpful to know which strengths you can rely on for your journey.
In Europe: EC 261
- What is EC 261?
- EC 261 Compensation
- Your rights under EC 261
- Which flights are covered?
- What’s not covered: Extraordinary Circumstances
What is EC 261?
EC 261/2004 is a regulation in EU law that favors the passenger. It holds airlines financially accountable when air travel takes an unexpected turn, so long as the disruption was not caused by circumstances outside of the airline’s control.
In comparison to other laws on passenger rights, EC 261 is one of the most comprehensive. This important piece of legislation plays a vital role in advocating for air travelers and passenger rights, and not only for European travelers. All passengers departing from a European airport are covered under EC 261. And in some circumstances, passengers flying into Europe from other worldwide destinations may be covered as well.
EC 261 Compensation for Disrupted Flights
Travelers often do not understand that in many instances, airlines are legally and financially responsible for flight issues, not the passenger.
Depending on your flight, flight scenario, and ultimate destination, understanding passenger rights and filing a claim can mean up to $700 per flight in reimbursements.
AirHelp can assist with our staff of legal experts to iron out the finer details and legal jargon.
Your rights under EC 261
EC 261 is an extensive bit of legislation which requires airlines to compensate passengers in the event of:
The amount of compensation passengers are entitled to depends on a lot of factors including the distance traveled and the amount of time you are delayed reaching your final destination.
In addition to monetary compensation, EC 261 includes other rights relating to your treatment. Here are some of the highlights:
Obligation to inform passengers of their rights
Your first basic right is to be informed about the content of EC 261. Every airline has to display information on passengers’ rights at their check-in counters in every airport where they operate. If our breakdown of the legalese is still not enough, you can read the actual text of EC 261, as well.
Right to reimbursement or re-routing
In addition to compensation for your loss of time, if your delay exceeds five hours, you are entitled to a full or partial refund of your original ticket and a return flight to your point of departure, if needed.
Right to care
When a flight disruption occurs and you’re stuck waiting for the airline to get you back on track toward your destination, you’re entitled to a number of essentials, depending on your flight details.
The carrier must provide you with:
- Meals and refreshments during the delay
- Access to communications, including two telephone calls, telex or fax messages, and emails
- If overnight accommodations are necessary, they must provide you with a hotel room and transportation to and from the airport
The following chart explains when passengers become eligible for these rights:
|Flight details||Length of delay|
|All flights 1,500km or less||2 hours or more|
|Internal EU flights over 1,500 km||3 hours or more|
|Non-internal EU flights between 1,500 km and 3,500 km||3 hours or more|
|Non-internal EU flights over 3,500 km||4 hours or more|
Upgrading and downgrading
If you are offered an alternative flight and placed in a higher class than the one you booked, the air carrier cannot charge you any additional payment. On the other hand, if the class of the alternative flight is lower, you can get a reimbursement between 30% and 75% of the price you originally paid.
Your right to compensation under EC 261 does not affect your right to request further compensation. This rule does not apply in cases where passengers have voluntarily surrendered their reservations. Of course, the amount you are entitled to under EC 261 may be deducted from whatever additional compensation you receive.
Which Flights are Covered by EC 261?
Most routes within Europe are covered. This includes not only EU airspace, but also Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and the so-called “outermost regions” (French Guiana and Martinique, Mayotte, Guadeloupe and La Réunion, Saint-Martin, Madeira and the Azores, and the Canary Islands).
Many international flights are covered, as well. If your flight departs from an airport in the EU, it’s covered. If your flight departs from elsewhere but your destination is in the EU, coverage depends on the airline ⎯ if it’s a European carrier, you’re covered.
If you’re confused, here’s a simple chart to help:
|Itinerary||EU air carrier||Non-EU air carrier|
|From inside the EU to inside the EU||Covered||Covered|
|From inside the EU to outside the EU||Covered||Covered|
|From outside the EU to inside the EU||Covered||Not covered|
|From outside the EU to outside the EU||Not covered||Not covered|
In some cases, disrupted flights outside the EU may be eligible under EC 261 if they connect to a covered flight that is with the same carrier and part of the same flight reservation (under one booking reference number). The easiest way to find out if you’re covered is to use the AirHelp eligibility check.
What’s Not Covered: Extraordinary Circumstances
EC 261 says that airlines do not have to pay compensation if the disruption was caused by ‘extraordinary circumstances’ which are events outside of their control. For example, you will not be eligible for compensation if your delay was a result of one of the following:
|Strikes initiated by airport employees or air traffic control|
However, airlines must still show that they have taken reasonable measures to prevent the delay. For example, bad weather may be considered an extraordinary circumstance. However, if other airlines were prepared for it and prevented delays, whilst yours didn’t, you should still be entitled to compensation.
In the years since EC 261 was introduced numerous court cases have been contested over what counts as an ‘extraordinary circumstance’. Our legal experts keep up to date with these latest developments. We were particularly pleased with the 2018 ruling by the European Courts of Justice that airline staff strikes cannot be considered an extraordinary circumstance. That means that thousands of passengers who have been affected by airline staff strike action will now be eligible for compensation.
US Air Passenger Rights
What are US air passenger rights?
Unfortunately, US laws regarding passenger rights when your flight is delayed or canceled are not as extensive as European or international laws.
US laws are, however, beneficial to individuals who are denied boarding, passengers experiencing tarmac delays or travelers who experience luggage problems.
Airlines in the US are more likely to overbook their flights than airlines in Europe. Consequently, there are strong laws in place governing your right to be compensated. If you are denied boarding due to overbooking in the US you could be entitled to up to $1,350 compensation. See our advice on overbooked flights for more information.
While US laws do not address delayed flights in general, there are laws concerning what happens if your flight is delayed on the tarmac. We recommend you read our blog about lengthy tarmac delays so you know your rights if it happens to you.
Luggage issues on US domestic flights
Passengers on US flights have a number of rights when it comes to banged-up, delayed, and lost bags. We go into a lot more detail on our baggage compensation page.
Which Flights are Covered by US Regulations?
The US tarmac delay regulations apply to any flight departing from or flying to a US airport, while boarding denial regulations apply to flights with US carriers originating in the United States.
The US laws regarding luggage problems deal with domestic flights with US carriers between US cities. International flights originating in the United States are covered by the Montreal Convention, in most cases.
International Rights: The Montreal Convention
- What is the Montreal Convention?
- What Rights are Covered by the Montreal Convention?
- Which flights are covered by the Montreal Convention?
What is the Montreal Convention?
The Montreal Convention is a multilateral treaty which has been adopted by over 130 countries around the world. Its aim is to establish airline liability in the case of flight delay and for damage or loss of baggage.
While it is designed as a universal treaty to govern airline liability around the world, it is not so comprehensive on flight disruption as Europe’s EC 261 regulation. However, it does offer rights to claim for damages for baggage and offers passengers rights on international flights between the large number of nations that honor the regulation.
What Rights are Covered by the Montreal Convention?
The 2003 Montreal Convention sets out passenger rights for several types of flight disruption: delays, flight cancellations, or boarding denials.
If you miss a pre-paid reservation, have to pay for an extra night at a hotel, or rack up any other unforeseen expenses due to air travel problems, you can get reimbursed. It’s usually necessary to provide documentation of the incident and proof of added expenses, so hold onto your receipts.
There are obviously a few caveats to consider, and passengers should note that only damages resulting from the disruption are covered.
The Montreal Convention uses the word “damages” to talk about what passengers are entitled to, but that is interpreted differently depending on where you are. In many jurisdictions like the United States, those “damages” are limited to monetary losses and don’t include psychiatric distress (unless they are a result of a physical injury). In other parts of the world, like the EU, a looser interpretation of the regulation allows passengers to claim for emotional damages. These distinctions are beyond the scope of this document though, and if you need more info, you might be better off seeking professional counsel.
The Montreal Convention also provides protection in the event of luggage issues, whether that’s damaged bags, delayed bags or lost luggage.
Be aware there are strict time limits on these laws, so you must file claims as soon as possible. Damaged baggage claims must be submitted within 7 days, delayed baggage within 21 days. Bags lost for longer 21 days are considered lost, and you will have 2 years to file a claim.
If this is not enough information and you would like to know exactly what the Montreal Convention says, you can read the actual text of the agreement here.
Which Flights are Covered by the Montreal Convention?
The Montreal Convention applies to international flights between nations that honor the regulation. It was signed and is recognized by more than 130 countries (and counting) around the world, including the US and the EU. Most major airline markets are members with a few notable exceptions (e.g. Sri Lanka and Vietnam). The list of members does occasionally change as nations join in, which may not always be immediately reflected by the link above.
The Convention also applies if your departure and destination are both within a single member nation, but only when there is a planned stopover in a different country. For example, imagine that you’re flying between cities in a member nation such as China with a stopover in Vietnam. Your flight would be covered. But if you had a direct flight instead, with no stopover, it would not be an “international” flight and would not be covered.
At AirHelp, we are committed to serving the travel community and air passengers at large with crucial, up-to-date information regarding travelers’ rights. It is our mission to help novice and expert travelers alike understand decisive details.
What’s more, we seek to simplify specific legal statues that are on your side, so that you know what the laws do and how you can effectively approach a wide variety of flight disruptions beyond your control. We help people that experience flight delays, flight cancellations, denied boarding, baggage problems, and missed connections.
So far, we’ve helped millions of travelers and we also provide additional technological tools for travelers in their flight compensation quests. In doing so, AirHelp has fundamentally changed the legal industry, holding airlines accountable and by offering ‘Justice-as-a-Service’ to consumers.
Since its launch in 2013, AirHelp’s legal team has successfully challenged airlines that attempt to dodge their liability using unfounded arguments. For instance:
Disruptions on multi-leg flights: AirHelp has won a case where a passenger claimed compensation for their disrupted multi-leg flight that had a delay on the second leg. The airline only paid out compensation for the second leg, not for the whole route. The court decided that it is irrelevant which leg is affected; compensation is due for the whole route. This decision is likely to be followed by other courts.
Drunken passengers and broken windows: AirHelp won a case where a delay was caused by the offloading of two drunken passengers, as well as the crew needing to fix a broken window. The court decided that neither of these causes fell under “extraordinary circumstances.”
Refusing Re-Routing: If passengers don’t accept the re-routing schedule offered by the airline following the cancellation of their flight and decided not to go at all, they are now considered to be entitled to compensation even when the passenger was already reimbursed for the flight ticket by the airline.
AirHelp Efforts Change Jurisdiction
Several of the cases AirHelp has won have led to legislative changes around the world, including these noteworthy scenarios:
Flight connections compensation in Germany: Before AirHelp started working on claims regarding delays caused by missed connections, passengers needed to prove that the only reason behind missing their flight was the fact that their first flight was delayed. Today, after winning several cases, a delay of the first leg that leads to the passenger not having the minimum connection time to change planes is automatically considered the airline’s fault.
Eligibility of infants to receive compensation in Denmark: Thanks to AirHelp, infants are now eligible for compensation, even when the parents only paid a fee for taking the baby with them on the aircraft.
At AirHelp, we want to help improve air travel for air passengers.