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 explain your rights, and help you claim the compensation you’re entitled to.
What Are Air Passenger Rights?
Air passenger rights involve specific laws that support travelers and advocate for protection and compensation when people face flight disruptions.
The situation varies from country to country. In the USA there are some regulations related to situations such as overbooked flights and tarmac delays. However, passengers often find more protection under the regulations in the countries they travel to. Europe’s EC 261 laws, in particular, are comprehensive and entitle passengers to compensation in a range of situations.
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, Brazil’s ANAC 400, 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 261/2004 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 for EU airline compensation can mean up to $700 per person in reimbursements.
To make an EU 261 claim, AirHelp can assist with our staff of legal experts to iron out the finer details and legal jargon.
Just select what happened on your disrupted flight:
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.
EU Airline Compensation – Which Flights are Covered by EC 261?
When it comes to EU Airline Compensation, it’s beneficial to know 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.
Your rights under EC 261
In addition to EU airline compensation which is monetary, 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.
EU 261 Claim – Is there a time limit to file a claim?
Your right to compensation under EC 261 does eventually expire, but the time limit varies from one country to the next.
You should note that the country you claim in is not decided by your nationality, but is determined by where the headquarters of the airline is, or what court has jurisdiction in cases concerning the airline.
As always, we have a handy chart for you:
|Czech Republic||3 years|
|United Kingdom||6 years|
* For Germany, the limitation period expires the last day of the third year (for example, the limitation period for a flight on 25/2/2016 expires on 31/12/2019).
** For Sweden, the limitation period is renewed any time a claim is made. So the limitation period for any subsequent claims would be three years from the time the last claim was filed.
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?
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 India. 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.
In Brazil: ANAC 400
About Passenger Rights in Brazil
Anyone flying in Brazil is protected by legislation from Brazil’s National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC).
Brazil is a great example of why we at AirHelp believe strong passenger rights are important. Passengers have rights when they fly – and when problems occur the laws are clear on exactly what care passengers should expect from the airline.
What’s more, if the airlines do not provide you with care, as per the law, you could be owed up to $1,300 in compensation.
We believe in making all air passengers aware of their rights, so airlines cannot hide when they don’t treat passengers correctly.
The laws that are most relevant to air travelers are known as ANAC Resolution Nº 400. These laws clearly set out airlines’ responsibilities to their passengers whenever there are flight issues. They offer air passengers a great deal of consideration, specifying exactly what care airlines must provide, and when.
Where an airline has failed to care for their passengers, Brazil’s Consumer Code allows passengers to claim compensation for the inconvenience.
Keep reading to understand exactly what care you should be getting in the event of flight disruption. But also, know that if you’ve been left abandoned or unfairly treated following a flight delay or cancellation in Brazil, AirHelp is able to negotiate compensation on your behalf.
Compensation for Flight Issues in Brazil
|Flight delay||Up to $1,300 per person|
|Flight cancellation||Up to $1,300 per person|
|Denied boarding||Up to $690 per person|
The reality is flight disruptions too often impose heavy costs on air passengers. Last-minute flight cancellations mean that passengers are stuck in unfamiliar cities while they wait for an alternative flight.
Accommodation costs quickly stack up, but so do food, drink, and transport when you’re unexpectedly far from home. Passengers are frequently left out of pocket following a flight issue.
That’s before we think about the costs that go beyond money. Passengers rely on air travel to deliver them to important events on time. Missing out on seeing a loved one say “I do”, not making it to your own graduation, or simply missing precious days of a long-awaited family vacation, are experiences that can never be replaced.
That’s why we believe it’s so important to hold airlines to account when they don’t care for their passengers as they should.
Brazil’s laws allow for passengers to claim back costs like food, drink, and transportation following a flight issue – these are referred to as “material damages”.
But under Brazil’s Consumer Code you are also entitled to seek as much as $1,300 in compensation for what’s known as “moral damages”. That means that you don’t need to prove that you incurred a cost – the laws understand that wasted time, missed opportunities, and bad treatment are also important, and deserve to be recompensed.
So if you’ve been unfairly affected by flight disruption, AirHelp can intervene on your behalf and demand that the airlines compensate you fairly for the inconvenience.
AirHelp can help if:
- Your flight was canceled at late notice - OR - Your flight was over 4 hours late arriving at your destination.
- You were not adequately looked after by the airline.
- Your flight landed or took off from a Brazilian airport.
- The issue occurred on a flight within the last 5 years (2 years for international flights).
Right to information:
If your flight is delayed at the airport the airline is required to let you know about it promptly. They must also inform you about the flight’s new expected departure time. Following this, the airline must provide an update on the delayed departure time every 30 minutes.
The airline must also provide you with a written explanation about the delay if you request it.
Right to care:
Whenever flights are delayed or canceled the airline must provide their passengers with material assistance. What they must provide depends on how long the passenger is left waiting after their original departure time:
Over 1 hour: passengers must be provided with access to communication – for example, a telephone call or Wi-Fi access for emailing, etc.
Over 2 hours: passengers must be provided with meals appropriate for the time of day. The airline may either provide food, or it can hand out meal vouchers to waiting passengers.
Over 4 hours: at this point, we consider your flight severely delayed, and 2 important rights kick in.
1. Reimbursement or rebooking – The airline must look to get you to your destination as soon as possible. We have more details about the choices below.
2. Accommodation – If the airline cannot get you to your destination any sooner, they must provide you with suitable accommodation.
However, airlines only need to offer accommodation if an overnight wait is required (so if you have a 5-hour wait during the day, no accommodation will be offered). Airlines must also provide transfers to the accommodation. If you live in the city of departure the airline doesn’t have to offer you accommodation – but they must offer you the transfers to your home.
Right to reimbursement or rebooking:
When flights are severely delayed (over 4 hours) or are canceled, passengers have the right to choose what happens to them next.
Airlines must offer passengers the following 3 choices:
- A ticket on another flight.
- A refund of the fare – including airport taxes and fees.
- A way of getting to their destination via other means – e.g. a bus ticket plus transfers.
An important point to note is that transferring to another flight (or route) to your destination must be offered for free.
Passengers who opt for a ticket on another flight can choose to take the next available flight – regardless of whether that flight is with the same airline or a competitor going to the same destination. Alternatively, they can take a later flight operated by their airline – on the time and date that suits the passenger.
Either way, passengers who are rebooked then have priority over other passengers on that flight. That means that if the replacement flight was overbooked, the already inconvenienced passenger would not be asked to give up their seat.
Passengers are still entitled to the care detailed above, until the passenger departs on their flight (or depart on alternative transport). Though the right to care will end if the passenger opts for reimbursement.
Rights if the airline changes your flight:
Sometimes, airlines may need to make changes to your flight – for example, the departure time could be later, or they may change your direct flight to a connecting flight. If this happens to you, ANAC 400 offers some protection.
The airline can make the following changes, so long as they let passengers know about the change at least 72 hours before the original departure time.
|Change in time|
|Domestic flights||+/- 30 minutes|
|International flights||+/- 1 hour|
If your flight changes by more than this, or if the airline does not inform you of a change more than 72 hours in advance, the airline must offer you either:
- An alternative flight
- A full refund
If you’re not advised about the flight change and turn up at the airport for your original departure time, the airline must rebook or reimburse you for your flight. They could also provide you with alternative transportation (that could be a bus, taxi, ship, or a private driver service like Uber) and they must take care of your food, drink, and accommodation where necessary.
Rights for passengers with additional needs:
Brazilian laws offer additional protections for air passengers who may require assistance.
Rights when you fly:
Another ANAC resolution, Nº 280, covers the rights of air passengers with additional needs. This law recognizes that the following passengers may require more assistance when they fly:
- Passengers aged 60 and over
- Pregnant and breastfeeding passengers
- Passengers accompanied by an infant (a child under 2)
- Passengers with reduced mobility
- Any passenger with a specific condition that limits their autonomy
The airline is required to offer these passengers appropriate care and assistance while they are at the airport and during the flight.
In the event of flight issues:
Passengers with additional needs, as defined above, have priority when flights are delayed or canceled.
The primary consequence of this provision is that if passengers are offered a replacement flight, passengers with additional needs will be reallocated onto new flights first.
Passengers with additional needs must also be offered accommodation whenever there is a wait of 4 or more hours, regardless of whether the delay means an overnight wait.
Your rights if you’re denied boarding:
Brazilian laws act to discourage airlines from overbooking flights, which can lead to denied boardings.
If you are on a flight which has been overbooked, the airline will look for volunteers to give up their seat. These passengers must still be compensated – though, the passenger and airline are free to agree exactly what that compensation looks like.
If no volunteers are found, airlines are able to deny boarding to some passengers. These passengers must be offered an alternative flight, the care outlined above, and additional compensation. This compensation is set under ANAC 400 and is payable immediately.
|Compensation amount (US$)||Compensation amount (SDR*)|
|Domestic flights||$345||SDR 250|
|International flights||$690||SDR 500|
*SDR = Special Drawing Rights. ANAC 400 lists all compensation amounts in SDR. We have included the approximate US$ amount here.
What situations are you covered in?
Brazilian law covers air passengers affected by flight issues that are out of the passenger’s control. So a flight delay or flight cancellation is covered by these laws. But if miss your flight because you didn’t get to the airport on time, or if you decide to cancel your flight and take a later one, these laws will not come into effect.
One important point about the law is that it exists to ensure that airlines are treated fairly as well.
When airlines are responsible for the delay – for example, staff shortages or a technical fault, it is clear that they must be held responsible for any passengers affected.
However, sometimes flight disruptions are caused by circumstances outside of the airline’s control. For example, a strike by air traffic control or extreme weather. These events are called extraordinary circumstances.
If your flight is delayed or canceled as a result of extraordinary circumstances, passengers are still entitled to care. However, airlines are not expected to provide compensation for events that are outside of their control.
The one exception to this is if the airline neglects their duty of care. While extraordinary circumstances are outside of the airline’s control, they are rarely unexpected. Airlines have ample time to prepare for disruptions. If it’s clear that they failed to do so, AirHelp can help those passengers that were affected by making a case for compensation.
Which flights are covered?
The Brazilian air passenger laws apply to:
- Domestic flights within Brazil.
- International flights that depart from a Brazilian airport.
- International flights that arrive at a Brazilian airport.
- Flights that connect via a Brazilian airport.
- Any flight ticket issued in Brazil (even if the flight is operated abroad).
Is there a time limit?
It’s important to be aware of your rights so that you can demand you get the treatment you deserve when you fly.
But you may also be able to claim compensation for flights that occurred in the past, where you may not have been aware of the rights you have when you fly.
|Claim for flights in the past:|
|Domestic flights||5 years|
|International flights||2 years|
- Ask for the care you need - communication, food and drink, and accommodation.
- Let the airline know if you require additional assistance.
- Keep hold of your flight boarding pass.
- Ask for a statement from the airline about the flight delay or cancellation.
- Also, hold on to any additional documentation the airline gives you regarding the disruption.
- Take pictures of conditions at the gate and of any vouchers or assistance you are offered.
- Keep all receipts from the expenses you occur as a result of the disruption.
- Record the names of the airline staff - particularly if they refuse your request for assistance.
AirHelp’s mission is to help air passengers
Since 2013 we have been committed to serving the travel community and air passengers at large by providing crucial, up-to-date information regarding travelers’ rights.
Regardless of whether you’re a novice flier or an expert traveler we can help simplify the laws that are on your side. So that you know what your rights are 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 13 million travelers. 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.