What are my rights if my flight is delayed?

delayed flight

Nobody wants to think about the possibility that of flight delays when they're travelling. However, one recent study found that in 2014, the total of all delays to flights to and from UK airports added up to 32 years and eight months. So it's important to know what will happen if your flight is running significantly behind schedule - and what your rights are.

The statistics show that each flight is delayed by an average of 40 minutes, but of course this hides the many extreme delays within the overall figures. Recently a family from Shropshire was stranded for 25 hours in JFK Airport in New York because of bad weather. During their nightmare, they were allowed to board a plane, which then sat on the runway for four hours before they were told to get off again. Nightmare.

What are the rules?

If your flight is delayed, a set of European Regulations - the Denied Boarding Regulation - sets out what you are entitled to (as long as you are either flying from an EU airport, into an EU airport, or on an EU-based airline). What the airline is required to provide depends on how far you are flying, and how long you are delayed for.

You are entitled to a meal every mealtime, regular refreshments, and two free emergency phone calls, faxes or emails once you have been delayed for a certain length of time. If you are going to have to stay for the night, it also has to provide free accommodation and transfers.

If the flight is under 932 miles, your rights kick in when it is delayed for at least two hours; if your flight is further than this, the airline has three hours before it has to start caring for your needs. If the plane is delayed for five hours or more (but not cancelled), you are entitled to cancel your journey and get a refund of the ticket price.

What if I can't get hold of anyone from the airline?

In practical terms, if you cannot get hold of anyone from the airline, then make sure you keep your expenses to a reasonable level, keep your receipts, and you can make a claim from the airline in writing when you get home (citing Article 9 of the EC regulation 251/2-4 which entitles you to accommodation, meals and transport, regardless of the reason for delay).

Usually airlines will accept reasonable costs, but if they reject them, you can complain to the Civil Aviation Authority and consider the small claims court - which doesn't have to be a particularly daunting or time-consuming process. It's worth pointing out that if you have had excessive costs, or abandoned the journey and tried to make your way home another way, you could struggle to get the airline to refund the money.

Do bear in mind that the airline has this duty to look after you, regardless of why you are delayed - and whether or not it was their fault.

Will I be entitled to compensation?

In some instances, you will also be entitled to compensation, but the situation is a bit complicated at the moment. The 2004 European regulations require airlines to pay compensation if flights are cancelled because of circumstances that the airline could have reasonably foreseen.

This compensation is substantial: 250 euros for inter-EU flights of 932 miles or less, 400 euros for flights between 932 and 2,175 miles, and 600 euros for longer journeys (as long as you are either flying from an EU airport, into an EU airport, or on an EU-based airline).

In 2009 the scope of this compensation increased dramatically, after a ruling by the European Court of Justice that passengers should be treated as though their flight had been cancelled if they are delayed for more than three hours (or more than four hours on the longest flights) - as long as the late running wasn't due to 'extraordinary circumstances'. This decision was highly controversial at the time, but was upheld by the ECJ in 2012, at which point a number of airlines started paying out.

What can I do?

Anyone who has been delayed for this length of time, and believes the circumstances are not exceptional, should put in a compensation claim to their airline - by informing the airline you wish to do so and telling them the flight number, the length of the delay, and the reason you were given for the delay. You should also explain that you are calling on your rights under the EU Denied Boarding Regulations 261/2004. You should include the sum to which you are entitled, and explain that you expect payment within 14 days. You'll need to send a copy of the ticket or booking confirmation too.

There are no limits within the regulations themselves as to how far back you can claim, but the statute of limitations in the UK is six years, so you will struggle to make a claim if it goes back any further than this. It's also worth bearing in mind that if you are close to the six years limit, the process of getting money out of the airline may take you over it if you get caught up in delays.

The bad news

There continues to be legal wrangling over what constitutes 'exceptional circumstances'. Certainly if your delay was caused by severe weather or geological events, then you will not receive compensation. Likewise political instability, security risks, and strikes fall within the definition of 'exceptional'.

The airlines are also trying to argue that some technical problems should be classed as 'exceptional circumstances', so they have rejected a number of claims on this basis. Other claims have gone through the courts, and the court has found in favour of the traveller, but five airlines have delayed payments because they are awaiting the outcome of a test case in the Netherlands challenging whether technical problems are exceptional (Jet2, Thomas Cook, Ryanair, FlyBe and WizzAir).

Last year two Supreme Court rulings found that airlines should still pay up where there had been a technical fault, and this was expected to kickstart compensation payments. In February, a case at Liverpool Crown Court concluded that payments could not be delayed again because: "A line should now be drawn. Justice delayed is justice denied."

An optimist would conclude that this is the final chapter of the legal saga, but although it sets a strong example, it doesn't set a legally-binding precedent, because it is only a county court decision. So there is a strong likelihood we haven't heard the last of this.

Should I bother to make a claim?

However, these wranglings shouldn't stop you from making a claim for compensation from your airline, and pushing your case if it is rejected because the delay was due to technical problems.

If it is rejected on these grounds, you need to write back to the airline, again including details of the flight and the length of the delay and the EU rights you are calling on. You need to add that while the previous letter rejected your claim saying the delay was due to 'exceptional circumstances', case law has shown that technical problems are not considered exceptional circumstances unless they are the type you wouldn't expect on a plane.

And to back up your argument you can cite the cases you are referring to: Wallentin-Hermann vs Alitalia in 2009 and Jet2 vs Huzar in 2014. Then reiterate the money due to you, and give them 14 days to pay.

The EC has actually produced an app explaining your rights on various modes of transport, which you can download here.

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What are my rights if my flight is delayed?

Reviews on AirlineQuality.com included this scathing comment: ‘Incredibly uncomfortable seats, poor food, rude staff who just wanted to get the meal service out of the way so they could stand at the rear of the plane and chat amongst themselves.’ Hopefully, the merger with British Airways will mean there's a hope for a rise in standards.

These less-than-glowing reviews on AirlineQuality.com say it all: ‘…nothing could be as bad as EgyptAir. Dirty aircraft with disinterested crew. The toilets were filthy, food looked like leftovers from other airlines. The seating is exceptionally cramped and uncomfortable’ and ‘I find the staff on EgyptAir lazy and unprofessional.’ And apparently the seats aren’t cheap either!

Old planes and unexplained flight delays were among the common complaints about this Chinese airline. Customers alternately complained that flight attendants don’t speak English (although some praising the communication skills). Other comments included criticism of the poor quality of the food and service.

Oh dear, customers are not happy with their experience of this airline or its website. Shabby planes, flights being delayed, rescheduled or rerouted without notice or explanation. And the airline got the lowest score for its food. Altogether a big thumbs down from reviewers.

Chinese air travel isn’t coming off well according to Zagat findings. Customer comments on AirQuality.com on this airline’s service included: ‘…poor food, warm drinks, inadequate English language skills of crew (including nonsensical inflight announcements), non-reclining seats… All in all, quite an unpleasant series of flights’ and ‘Be careful to check and re-check your booking, as flight times can (and did) change without notice. You can miss your flight very easily.’

Described by one reviewer as ‘the airline from hell’, you’d be forgiven for giving it a wide berth unless it ups its game considerably! Reviews included: ‘First, the airline could not fine my reservation… then they determined that "someone" had canceled it in spite of my confirming it on their website’; ‘The worst thing was the attitude of US airways staff and the lies they told us. I wouldn't touch them again with a barge pole’ and ‘Most of the staff are rude and unfriendly… All in all a terrible experience. Never again.’

It was the terminal at the airport that came in for most criticism here. Customers commented on the poor bus transfer to the gate and unfriendly staff. Another criticism was that the elderly and passengers with children weren’t properly catered for. And one reviewer said the pilot announced: 'Sorry, we do not fly today. The plane is broken'.

The general stampede for unallocated seats was a common criticism for easyJet. One customer complained: ‘It would cost the easyJet computer nothing to allocate seats and alleviate the impression one is fighting for a place on a bus that may be overfull’; another said: ‘My biggest concern was the feeling of chaos inboard. The safety demo audio was played at a very low volume, and people were speaking on their mobile phones during the safety demonstration, cabin crew seemingly not giving a damn.’ Other complaints include overbooked flights and disorganised service...

Lack of food on international flights, a poorly kept plane and bad service generally were all at the heart of the complaints by travellers. TOne passenger pulled no punches with the comment: ‘My trip from Lima, Peru to Boston was the biggest nightmare of my life next to getting all four of my wisdom teeth pulled while conscious’; another, commenting on the policy of charging for hand luggage, said: ‘Robbing people as they board your airplane should really help your already abysmal tardy departure record…’ and a third summed up with: ‘They charge for everything, their agents are rude, and the flights are overbooked, late, not that clean, and just an awful experience.’  Biggest gripe of all was the charges the airline makes for hand luggage.

It was not hard to find reviewers with a poor opinion of the budget airline. An overriding impression was one of being ripped off.  As one customer commented: ‘I've concluded that Ryanair is nothing but a great big social experiment to see how arrogant an airline can get and how low customer service can be pushed before the said airline starts to lose money….We keep coming back to this horrid airline with its miserable service in hope that we'll save a Euro or two. Reality is that we probably end up spending more money than we would have if we opted for a better airline’, while delivered a damning verdict: ‘They have to be the most customer unfriendly company I have come across. Dirty plane when we eventually got on, tired looking and dishevelled cabin crew. What more can I say - a shocking experience that I never wish to repeat.’


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