What are your rights if a flight is seriously delayed? We investigate the European position

Following a recent trip to Europe, which was blighted by flight delays, the author has produced this briefing note. It is intended to summarise what can seem, at first sight, to be a rather technical subject.

In a nutshell, European regulations state that if a flight delay is the fault of an airline, any passenger holding a valid ticket can claim compensation.

As well as pursuing any current claim, a passenger can make “backdated” claims for flights taken within the last five years. It does not matter what the ticket cost or whether the flight was scheduled or part of a package holiday.

Qualifying conditions

A claim can be entertained only if the passenger booked to fly on a European Union (EU) flight. This means that the flight either departed from an EU airport (regardless of the airline) or that it was operated by an EU based airline and landed at an airport within the EU.

For example, a flight from Glasgow to Miami would be covered no matter the airline. A flight from Miami to Glasgow would be covered only if the passenger were to fly with an airline based in the EU. A flight offered by, for example, Continental, would not qualify.

The delay must have been putatively within the control of the airline. Staffing problems or over or under-booking clearly would fall within this criterion. Adverse weather or the grounding of an aircraft pending safety checks would be deemed to be outwith an airline’s control. It is worth checking the regulations, however, because the definition of “extraordinary circumstances outwith (an) airline’s control” has several exceptions which are not considered to be extraordinary and in respect of which a claim can in fact be made. For example, it is possible for an aircraft to suffer a technical fault, which would (or should) have been within the control of the airline. Readers can access the regulations at: http://ec.europa.eu/transport/themes/passengers/air/doc/neb-extraordinary-circumstances-list.pdf

A qualifying delay must last for three hours or more. However, if it is longer than two hours, an airline must still look after its passengers, regardless of the cause. This can entail providing food and drink. Importantly, this is in addition to the passenger’s right to compensation if the delay transpires to last more than three hours.

Compensation claims

Levels of compensation are fixed and relate to both the length of the delay and the distance to be travelled:


DELAY (hours)


1 – 1,500



1,500 – 3,500



3,500 +

3 – 4





Supporting evidence is required for a claim. Clearly, the flight ticket will be needed as well as proof of the duration of the delay. The “Flight Stats” website is useful for checking on delays (http://www.flightstats.co.uk/home.do).

The distance travelled must also be ratified to determine the level of compensation due. In this respect, the Web Flyer distance calculator is very useful (http://www.webflyer.com/travel/mileage_calculator).

In the first instance, a complaint should be submitted to the airline which operated the flight. Unfortunately, there is no fixed timeframe within which the airline must respond. However, it would not be unreasonable to send a follow-up letter if there is no reply within 28 days. Thereafter, the passenger can complain to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), regarding flights which departed from the UK.

If the flight left from elsewhere in the EU (apart from the UK) and the airline is EU based (other than in the UK) then the complaint has to be sent to the European Consumer Centre or the regulator in the country of departure. If, however, the airline is non-EU based, it must be sent to the regulator in the country of departure. If a passenger departs from a non-EU country and arrives in the UK, the matter should be taken up with the CAA.

These bodies do not themselves decide cases or award compensation, but will take up the matter with the airline in question.

The Author
Iain Sim is a visiting lecturer at the University of Strathclyde
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