In recent years—thanks partly to the widespread adoption of pocket technologies, social media networks and a shrinking global community—passengers have gained stronger voices and sharper swords with which to defend themselves in cases of travel injustice. In Europe, Regulation 261/2004 (colloquially known as the Passenger Bill of Rights) took effect on February 18, 2005. It repealed Regulation (EEC) 295/91 and outlines a host of things that airline passengers traveling in Europe are entitled to in the event of long delays, flight cancellations or other distressing situations.
According to flightstats.com, the last 30 days saw 11,439 flight cancellations and 127,660 delays in the EU alone. Also, ongoing labor disputes at some of the region’s largest carriers have created an unpredictable environment for travelers, so knowing your rights is more important than ever.
Does Regulation 261/2004 apply to me?
If your flight is departing an airport in an EU member state or is destined for a member state and operated by an airline located within a member state, this bill applies to you…as long as your ticket is not a free or discounted ticket that isn’t available to the general public.
*Interesting fact: Regulation 261/2004 does not apply to flights departing Gibraltar International Airport for some reason that I have not been able to figure out. It may have something to do with the fact that its runway is intersected by a busy road.
My flight is cancelled or delayed. What am I entitled to?
This is a bit complex.
If your flight is cancelled, you’re always entitled to a refund of your original ticket price within seven days of flight cancellation. If you still want to make your journey, the airline can try to re-route you. You might also be entitled to some compensation and special assistance.
Let’s start with situations where you are NOT entitled to compensation or special assistance.
If your carrier notifies you of a cancellation two or more weeks prior to your departure date, or if the cancellation is caused by unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances (i.e. catastrophic weather, geological disaster or labor action), the airline does not need to compensate you. They do, however, need to refund your original ticket price within seven days and outline alternative transport options.
You’re also not entitled to compensation if your carrier notifies you of a cancellation between one and two weeks prior to your departure date and re-routes you so that your new departure time is no more than two hours earlier than originally planned, and so you arrive at your destination no more than four hours later than originally planned.
Outside of the situations above, you should be able to get some cash to compensate you for the hassle of a cancelled flight. The compensation is based on your flight “type”:
- Type 1 flight: less than 1500 km (932 miles) in distance—you can get up to €125 ($159 USD) if you are re-routed by the airline and arrive at your destination within two hours of original arrival time, or up to €250 ($318 USD) if you land more than two hours after original arrival time.
- Type 2 flight: within the EU and greater than 1500 km in distance, or any other flight of greater than 1500 km but less than 3500 km (2,175 miles) in distance—you can get up to €200 if you are re-routed by the airline and arrive at your destination within three hours of original arrival time, or up to €400 ($510 USD) if you land more than three hours after original arrival time.
- Type 3 flight: not within the EU and greater than 3500 km in distance—you can get up to €300 ($382 USD) if you are re-routed by the airline and arrive at your destination within four hours of original arrival time, or up to €600 ($765 USD) if you land more than four hours after original arrival time.
If your new, post-cancellation/delayed flight plan involves a long waiting period, the airline should provide hotel accommodations and “refreshments” in line with the waiting time unless the serving of said refreshments would somehow delay the flight further. They should also provide you access to email, fax and telephones, unless doing so would delay the flight further.
If your whole trip is kaput because the airline is just unable to re-route you in an acceptable period of time, you should be re-paid the cost of unused plane tickets and the cost of any used tickets for travel rendered pointless by the flight cancellation. Where applicable, the airline should also pay for your safe and hasty return to your original point of departure.
There are about a gazillion other small clauses, inclusions and exceptions in this regulation. It’s tricky.
- Book directly with your airline or a reputable travel agent. There are a lot of websites out there with cut-rate airfare deals, but that third party can add an unnecessary layer of complexity when things get messy.
- Know your airline and airports. In spite of all these fancy government regulations, your airline is still your first/main point of contact when anything goes wrong. When possible, try to book tickets with airlines (and travel through airports) that are in a safe region, that have a good track record for customer service, that aren’t embroiled in labor disputes and that have employees who speak your language fluently.
- Know your flight “type” and what it means. Are you type 1, 2 or 3? (see above)
- Get organized. Keep all emails, receipts and documents related to your trip in a safe place that you or a family member can easily get to. It’s best if you have them on your person.
- Visit this page before you fly. It explains the regulations in easy-to-digest terms.
- Download the Your Passenger Rights app for Apple iOS, Android, Blackberry, or Windows phones. It’s free and was developed by the European Commission just to help passengers like you.
- If you are entitled to some kind of compensation or were not provided assistance as outlined by in Regulation 261/2004 and your airline is not cooperating, contact the European Commission’s National Enforcing Body for the country in which the infringement of your rights occurred. Here’s a list of contacts.