In June 2017, I traveled to Europe with my children to visit my extended family. Our flight from New York to Berlin got canceled, and as it usually happens in such cases, we were put on a different flight. Once we arrived, one of my relatives remarked, “You know you can get compensated for that, right?” To be honest, I didn’t know. In fact, I was not aware that there was such a thing as flight compensation. The reason I had no idea is that here in the United States, there is no such thing. The U.S. Department of Transportation website clearly states that “in the United States, airlines are not required to compensate passengers when flights are delayed or canceled. Compensation is required by U.S. law only when certain passengers are ‘bumped’ from a flight that is oversold.” So the only instance in which an airline must pay a passenger is if he/she is denied boarding because the flight is overbooked. In all other cases of flight delays or cancellations, it is up to the airline if they want to offer their unfortunate passengers something like a voucher for food or future travel.
In Europe, however, the situation is entirely different.
Flight Compensation Regulation EC 261/2004 is an EU legislation that spells out the rules that airlines must follow when it comes to compensating their passengers for delayed and canceled flights. Let us take a look at who it applies to and in what situations passengers can get compensated.
To be eligible for compensation, you must fly on a European airline TO Europe, or on any airline FROM Europe. In other words, if you fly KLM or Lufthansa, then you can get compensated whether your destination is in Europe or in the U.S. or in a country in Asia. However, if you are on an American Airlines or Air Canada flight, you are covered only on that leg of the trip which originates in Europe.
Your flight must have been delayed by at least three hours or canceled within fourteen days of departure or you must have been denied boarding in order to be eligible for compensation. The amount of money you can get depends on the distance of the flight, starting at 250 euros and going all the way up to 600 euros for flights between Europe and the United States, Canada, or Asia. For canceled flights, you must be offered an alternative flight or a full refund on top of being compensated. In addition to monetary compensation, the airlines must also reimburse you for meals, hotel, and airport transfer costs. Make sure to keep all your receipts for reimbursement.
If the delay or cancellation was caused by an extraordinary circumstance (or vis major event) such as bad weather, a strike, or an unexpected airport closure, then the airline is not responsible and does not have to compensate its passengers. Mechanical issues, however, are considered the responsibility of the airline.
According to a July 2019 press release by the Court of Justice of the European Union, if you have a single reservation that originates in Europe, you are eligible for compensation if your connecting flight outside of Europe is delayed or canceled. So for instance, if your reservation is for the route BUD – PHL – MSP and your Philadelphia – Minneapolis leg is delayed by more than three hours, you can get compensated by the airline that operated your Budapest – Philadelphia flight. The EU Court of Justice says that “a flight with one or more connections which is the subject of a single reservation constitutes a whole for the purposes of the right of passengers to compensation provided for in the regulation on the rights of air passengers.”
You can file for compensation for several years after your flight delay or cancellation. The length of time is not specified by the legislation but determined by each country; however, it’s at least two years and in some countries, it can be up to six years.
So the big question that remains is how to file for compensation.
You can contact the airline directly or use a third-party service such as EU Flight Delay, the only U.S.-based flight compensation company. The advantage of doing it yourself is that you receive the entire amount (which is, for most transatlantic flights, 600 euros that currently equals to about 670 dollars). The disadvantage is that you might have to deal with the hassle of not finding the right person to communicate with, of getting ignored by the airline, of possibly having to jump through several hoops, etc. On the flip side, the advantage of using a company’s services is that after signing an Authorization form and providing basic information, you have nothing more to do but wait for your money to arrive; the company does all the work for you. They have lawyers that can put the pressure on airlines that might try to evade compensating their passengers. The disadvantage of using a third-party service, of course, is that the company will take a percentage of your compensation. For many passengers, the commission is more than worth not having the hassle of navigating airline bureaucracy.
Whichever way you go about it, make sure not to leave any money on the table when it comes to European flight delays or cancellations!