EC261

EC Regulation 261 (EC 261) is a law on air passenger rights that all EU member states must abide by.
EC 261 states that air passengers must be financially compensated if their flight is canceled or overbooked (unless the cancellation is due to extraordinary circumstances beyond the airline's control). Additionally, the EU's Court of Justice (EUCJ) ruled in 2012 that passengers whose flight arrives three hours late or more are also entitled to financial compensation (unless the delay is due to extraordinary circumstances beyond the airline's control).
The main objective of the ruling was to improve passenger protection rights across Europe and to harmonize the law among EU member states. Since this law was implemented in 2005, there have been many breakthrough judgements against airlines in the EUCJ, dramatically changing the landscape of air passenger rights. We've summarized the most important cases in the Breakthrough Rulings section.

When does the law apply?

The law on air passenger rights can be confusing and, at times, seem contradictory. That's what makes it difficult to understand when you're entitled to compensation and what compensation you're entitled to (with no help from airlines, who are legally obligated to inform you of these rights but often fail to do so comprehensively). The result? Less than 1% of eligible air passengers receive the compensation that is rightfully theirs!
Because of this confusion, it bears repeating that you may be eligible for financial compensation if your flight is overbooked, canceled, or delayed by more than three hours (unless the delay was caused by extraordinary circumstances beyond the airline's control).

Where does the law apply?

Since EC 261 is a European law, it only applies to EU airspace. However, you don`t have to be an EU citizen to claim compensation . If your flight departs from any airport in the EU or if your flight arrives at any airport in the EU (or from Iceland, Norway, or Switzerland), then you could be eligible for financial compensation if your flight is overbooked, canceled, or delayed by more than three hours.
Airline and origin EU airline non-EU airline
From outside EU to outside EU no no
From outside EU to inside EU yes no
From inside EU to outside EU yes yes
From inside EU to inside EU yes yes

What am I entitled to?

Compensation for delayed, canceled, or overbooked flights ranges from €250 to €600 per passenger. The amount varies according to the distance of your flight and the length of the delay at your final destination.
That compensation is in addition to customer care while you wait. This should include:
  • Refreshments
  • Food
  • Accommodation (if rebooked to the next day)
  • Transport to your accommodation
  • Phone call
To help you understand what you’re entitled to, we've covered all possible scenarios in this AirHelp Compensation Chart®
DELAY (at final destination after potential rebooking and/or re-routing) Distance
less than 2 hours more than 2 hours more than 3 hours more than 4 hours never arrived
Denied Boarding * € 250 € 250 € 250 € 250 € 250 1500 km or less
€ 400 € 400 € 400 € 400 € 400 All internal EU flights of more than 1,500 km and all others between 1,500 and 3,500 km
€ 600 € 600 € 600 € 600 € 600 All non internal EU flights of more than 3,500 km
Delayed €0 €0 € 250 € 250 € 250 1500 km or less
€0 €0 € 400 € 400 € 400 All internal EU flights of more than 1,500 km and all others between 1,500 and 3,500 km
€0 € 0 € 300 € 600 € 600 All non internal EU flights of more than 3,500 km
Cancelled ** € 125 € 250 € 250 € 250 € 250 1500 km or less
€ 200 € 200 € 400 € 400 € 400 All internal EU flights of more than 1,500 km and all others between 1,500 and 3,500 km
€ 300 € 300 € 300 € 600 € 600 All non internal EU flights of more than 3,500 km
DELAY Denied Boarding * Delayed Cancelled ** Distance
less than 2 hours €250 €0 €125 1500 km or less
€400 €0 €200 All internal EU flights of more than 1,500 km and all others between 1,500 and 3,500 km
€600 €0 €300 All non internal EU flights of more than 3,500 km
more than 2 hours €250 €0 €250 1500 km or less
€400 €0 €200 All internal EU flights of more than 1,500 km and all others between 1,500 and 3,500 km
€600 €0 €300 All non internal EU flights of more than 3,500 km
more than 3 hours €250 €250 €250 1500 km or less
€400 €400 €400 All internal EU flights of more than 1,500 km and all others between 1,500 and 3,500 km
€600 €300 €300 All non internal EU flights of more than 3,500 km
more than 4 hours €250 €250 €250 1500 km or less
€400 €400 €400 All internal EU flights of more than 1,500 km and all others between 1,500 and 3,500 km
€600 €600 €600 All non internal EU flights of more than 3,500 km
never arrived €250 €250 €250 1500 km or less
€400 €400 €400 All internal EU flights of more than 1,500 km and all others between 1,500 and 3,500 km
€600 €600 €600 All non internal EU flights of more than 3,500 km
* The compensation is due immediately and irrespective of any re-routing offered.
** The compensation may be halved by the airline in case the delay, after offered and accepted re-routing, was less than 2, 3 or 4 hours depending on the length of the flight.
* At final destination after potential rebooking and/or re-routing
** The compensation is due immediately and irrespective of any re-routing offered.
*** The compensation may be halved by the airline in case the delay, after offered and accepted re-routing, was less than 2, 3 or 4 hours depending on the length of the flight.
You are not entitled to compensation if the airline notified you about the cancelation 14 days or more before the scheduled flight (or if the airline offered an alternative for the same route and a similar schedule to the original flight).
For cancellations that occur due to extraordinary circumstances, the airline must still arrange for one of the following:
  • a ticket refund (in full or for the part you couldn’t use)
  • the soonest possible alternative transport to your final destination
  • a new ticket for the later date of your preference, subject to seat availability
Even in extraordinary circumstances, airlines must provide assistance when needed while you are waiting for your alternative transport.

The lowdown on overbooking

When a flight has been overbooked, airlines will first seek volunteers to trade their confirmed reservations for other benefits. Airlines must offer the volunteers a choice between a full refund and re-routing.
If you volunteer for re-routing, the airline must provide further assistance when appropriate, includingfood, access to a telephone, hotel accommodation, and transportation between the airport and the hotel.
If you opt not to give up your confirmed reservation and are denied boarding, you are instantly entitled to compensation between €250 and €600 per passenger, as well as a full refund of your confirmed reservation.

Connecting flights

Connecting flights are generally the same as direct flights, except for one key difference:
Since connecting flights involve multiple flights and airlines, as well as stops inside and outside of the EU, your eligibility for compensation changes.
Whether youre on a direct or connecting flight, your eligibility for compensation under EC 261/2004 requires that your origin or final destination be located in the EU. Additionally, for connecting flights, your eligibility for compensation due to delay, cancellation, or overbooking depends on the total delay en route to your final destination.*
* The term "final destination" applies to the final destination of your flights with one airline. If your connecting flight is with a different airline, then that flight is perceived as being separate. In that case, each individual flight has its own origin and final destination to which these laws apply.
CONNECTING FLIGHTS EU airline non-EU airline
From outside EU to outside EU (stop inside EU) yes yes, if the delay/cancellation occurred from inside EU
From outside EU to outside EU (stop outside EU) yes no
From outside EU to inside EU (stop inside EU) yes yes, if the delay/cancellation occurred from inside EU
From outside EU to inside EU (stop outside EU) yes no
From inside EU to inside EU (stop inside EU) yes yes
From inside EU to inside EU (stop outside EU) yes yes

Why is it so difficult to get compensation?

Airlines openly contest the recent EU legislation and have even refused to pay compensation after being ordered to do so by the EUCJ. They can get away with this because they assume that individual air passengers are likely to avoid the hassle of challenging a rejection in court.
Most claims are rejected through the "extraordinary circumstances" provision. But what does "extraordinary circumstances" really mean?
Extraordinary circumstances are caused by events that the airline can't control and for which they are not at fault. Examples include extreme weather conditions, political unrest, and employee strikes. To be completely sure if your cancellation or delay was caused by events that are "extraordinary" or not, view this chart:
Reason given by airline Technical problem Bad weather conditions Influence by other flights Problems with airport Strike No reason given
Delayed yes no yes yes no yes
Cancelled yes no yes yes no yes
Overbooked - - - - - -
EC Regulation 261/2004 can be downloaded in its entirety here.

Breakthrough rulings

In recent years, a hard-hitting round of court cases and EU rulings have drastically altered the landscape of passenger rights. We've outlined a few of these key milestones to help you keep up with the changes:

February 2004, Regulation261/2004 (European Commission)

The European Parliament and European Commission created this regulation to establish rules on the criteria and conditions for flight cancellations and denied boarding. This also includes passenger entitlements when the airline is unable to accommodate passengers in the class they originally booked. This regulation came into effect in February 2005 but doesn't include a reference to delayed flights.

December 2008, Wallentin-Hermann versus Alitalia (Court of Justice)

In this case, The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) concluded that airlines can't categorize technical issues in the aircraft's maintenance as an "extraordinary circumstance," thereby closing the loophole airlines often used to avoid paying compensation for canceled flights.

November 2009, Sturgeon versus Condor Flugdienst GmbH (Court of Justice)

In this case, the CJEU ruled that compensation should apply to delays of greater than three hours. This judgement was challenged by airlines such as British Airways, Lufthansa, and easyJet who claimed that the CJEU moved the goalposts on EC 261 (which did not express provisions for delays of greater than three hours).

October 2012, joined cases: (a) Nelson versus Lufthansa and (b) the Queen/TUI Travel/IATA/British Airways/easyJet versus CAA (Court of Justice)

The CJEU reconfirmed that flight delays of greater than three hours are entitled to compensation in line with EC 261, except in extraordinary circumstances beyond the airline's control. The ruling also stated that the requirement to compensate passengers for delayed flights is a ruling compatible with The Montreal Convention
The good news for you is that it's very unlikely that this decision will change, as rulings from The Grand Chamber of the CJEU can't be appealed. This case has been instrumental in clarifying the situation between consumers and the airline industry. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and other bodies across Europe were forced to update their passenger portals to clearly spell out the rights of travelers.

September 2013, Jeff and Joyce Halsall versus Thomas Cook (Staffordshire, UK)

According to the CAA, this is the first case that resulted in a victory while exercising EC 261. In this case, the Halsalls took Thomas Cook to court for claiming a delay under "extraordinary circumstances" that was actually caused by mechanical issues with the plane. The case was thrown out by the judge, but the Halsalls appealed the decision after learning about EC 261, ultimately winning their case.

February 2013, Air France vs. Heinz Gerke Folkerts (Court of Justice)

In this case, the CJEU determined that flights delayed less than three hours but then arriving at the final destination more than three hours late are entitled to compensation under EC 261.
Folkerts was scheduled to fly from Bremen to Paraguay via Paris and São Paulo. Her Air France flight from Bremen to Paris was delayed by 2.5 hours. Consequently, Folkerts missed her Air France flight from Paris to São Paulo. Though Air France booked her on a later flight to her destination, Folkerts missed her original connecting flight to Paraguay and arrived there 11 hours after the time originally scheduled.

Statute of limitations

The time limits within which compensation can be sought for delayed, canceled, and overbooked flights is determined by the national laws of each EU member state.
This ruling came from a November 2012 decision claiming that compensation measures laid down in Articles 5 and 7 of EC 261 fall “outside the scope of the Warsaw and Montreal Conventions.” In other words, the two-year statute of limitations referred to in Article 29 of the Warsaw Convention and Article 35 of The Montreal Convention does not apply.
Click on this link to read the statute of limitations in full.
Air passengers traveling in the US are protected by strict federal regulations on denied boarding and may secure compensation accordingly. However, the US does not have any such regulations regarding delayed or canceled flights.

Denied boarding

It is illegal for airlines in the US to sell more tickets than seats. However, many do this in order to compensate for what they call "no-shows". When there are more passengers than seats, you could end up being "bumped" from your flight against your will. Also known as being "denied boarding," the best way to prevent this is to arrive early (as those last checked in may be the first bumped).
You're eligible for financial compensation if you're denied boarding, as stated in The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 14, Aeronautics and Space, Part 250. According to this rule, you're eligible for 200% of your one-way fare if you get to your final destination between one and two hours late. There is a cap of $650 on this compensation. If you arrive at your final destination more than two hours late, you're eligible for 400% of your one-way fare, with a cap of $1,300.00.
The airline must pay each passenger that is involuntarily denied boarding by cash or the check on the day this occurs.
Delayed Compensation
0 to 1 hour arrival delay No compensation
1 hour to 2 (domestic) or 4 (international) hours arrival delay 200% of one way fare (but no more than $650).
Over 2 (domestic) or 4 (international) hours arrival delay 400% of one way fare (but no more than $1,300).
Now, let’s drill into the official stats from the last few years. See the table below:
Denied Boarding Statistics – US travel
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Boarded 576,476,000 548,041,000 595,253,000 539,230,000 600,774,000
Denied boarding total 684,000 719,000 746,000 551,000 598,000
Voluntary 620,000 651,000 681,000 509,000 539,000
Involuntary 64,000 67,000 65,000 41,000 59,000
Percent denied boarding 0.12 0.13 0.11 0.09 0.09
In the first half of 2013, more than 277,000 passengers (out of 305m) were denied boarding. Of that number, 31,500 cases received less than they were entitled to receive. The actual compensation from the latest published data ranges from $391 to $439 per passenger, despite federal regulations stipulating that 200-400% of the one-way fare for the bumped flight should be paid, depending on the length of the delay.
Based on the average cost of a one-way flight and the fact that the majority of time delays (over 70%) will be greater than two hours, we estimate that the average compensation should be $643.60 (not $391-$439) per passenger. In other words, US airlines are paying their involuntarily bumped passengers substantially less than the settlement dictated by official regulations.
In the present situation, airlines are persuading travelers to accept travel vouchers (in essence convincing them to voluntarily be denied boarding) to receive immediate, albeit reduced, compensation. In fact, public records show almost 10 times as many voluntary as involuntary denied boardings.
Our belief at AirHelp is that accepting these vouchers is unwittingly allowing airlines to circumvent regulations and wriggle out of maximum payout. We're here to education you on your rights so you can receive the compensation you deserve.

More on denied boarding

There's another federal regulation on denied boarding you need to be aware of: the regulations on lengthy tarmac delays.
Part 259 of the Enhanced Protections for Airline Passengers provides guidance “to mitigate hardships for airline passengers during lengthy tarmac delays and otherwise to bolster air carriers’ accountability.” This applies to all US and foreign airlines and compels airlines to apply customer service plans and contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays. This regulation does not, however, require airlines to offer financial compensation for lengthy tarmac delays.
Airlines must post contracts of carriage, tarmac delay contingency plans, and customer service planson their websites and assign an employee to monitor the effects flight delays, cancellations, and lengthy tarmac delays have on passengers. This employee shall contribute to the decision of which flights to cancel and which to delay the longest, based on the effects predicted. Airlines are also required to give passeners the mailing address, email address, and website of the department that handles customer service complaints in regards to scheduled services.
Additionally, the customer service planmust outline passenger rights on fares, cancellations, cancellation policies, delays, baggage handling, reservations, refunds, passengers with disabilities, "bumped" passengers, frequent flyer rules, and aircraft seating configuration. Airlines must annually audit their compliance with this plan and make the results available to The US Department of Transportation (DoT).