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; EC 261 Compensation and Beyond
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 EC261, 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.
Europe Air Passenger Rights: Regulation EC 261 / 2004
What is EC 261?
EC 261/2004 is a regulation in EU law that favors the passenger and holds airlines financially accountable when air travel takes an unexpected turn that are deemed the airlines’ errors. In comparison to other legal statutes regarding 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 at large.
Why it Makes Sense to Know About EC 261
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. AirHelp does not charge travelers to file a claim.
What Rights are Covered by EC 261?
EC 261 is an extensive bit of legislation which requires airlines to compensate passengers in the event of:
- Denied boarding
- Flight cancellation
- Long delay of flights (three or more hours)
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 free perks, 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.
US Air Passenger Rights
Unfortunately, US laws regarding passenger rights when your flight is delayed or cancelled are not as extensive as European or international laws.
US laws are, however, beneficial to individuals who are denied boarding, passengers experiencing lengthy tarmac delays or travelers who experience luggage problems.
What 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 Air Passenger Rights: Montreal Convention
What is the Montreal Convention?
The Montreal Convention covers passengers on international flights. These passengers are thereby issued rights, and potential compensation for flight disruptions are honored by participating nations.
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 120 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.
Not Covered: Extraordinary Circumstances
Not all flight disruptions fall under the support of passenger rights clauses. The following circumstances are typically not considered within the scope of an airline’s responsibility, and therefore, would not be covered by the laws in place.
In other words, the list below does not qualify for compensation:
|Strikes initiated by airport employees or air traffic control|
AirHelp's Role in Air Passenger Rights
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.
Renewed Hope: Passenger Rights Results
The focus on educating travelers, advocating for people who have experienced flight disruptions, and holding the airlines to the laws already in place are all strengthening the efforts and commitment to supporting more seamless travel and furthering passenger rights.
Accountability and Responsibility
Since its launch in 2013, AirHelp’s legal team has successfully challenged airlines that attempt to dodge their liability using unfounded arguments. For instance:
Natural causes: On one of the Greek islands, an airline maintained that a delay was caused by the need to wait for the sun to de-ice the aircraft naturally.
The mystery passenger: In Germany, one airline maintained that a passenger who was filing for compensation did not exist at all.
Drunken passengers and broken windows: In Finland, 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.”
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.
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.
Continually Unpacking Flight Scenarios and Passenger Rights
We’re committed to updating, relevant, and useful information. At Air Help, we’re always unpacking the following flight scenarios and corresponding air passenger rights regarding the US, Europe, and collective international flights.