Dreaming of a [delayed or cancelled] white Christmas in Europe? How passengers are protected (Part 1)

28 December, 2016

As heavy fog, snow and the occasional stray reindeer lead to what will be the almost inevitable havoc at Europe’s airports this Christmas period, the Blue Swan Daily looks at the European regulation providing protection to passengers travelling to and from the EU - as well as the airline industries’ push to ensure the right balance is maintained.

Delays, cancellations and denied boarding are an unavoidable part of air travel, particularly during the busy winter festive season. For those travelling to Europe, EU Regulation 261/2004 (the “Regulation”) sets out a series of entitlements available to eligible passengers in the event of such delays.

In Part 1 of this article we examine which passengers are protected under the Regulation and what the Regulation covers.

In Part 2, we will examine the exclusions which apply to this coverage – including examples of situations in which an airline would not be obliged to provide compensation.

Who’s protected?

To be protected by the Regulation, a passenger needs to be travelling on (i) a flight departing an airport within an EU country, or (ii) a flight into the EU where that flight is operated by an EU registered airline.

So, for example, a passenger travelling on British Airways from Sydney to London return would be covered for both the outbound and inbound flight because BA is an airline currently registered in an EU member state. However, if the passenger is travelling on Singapore Airlines for the same route, they’d only be covered for the outbound flight from London but not the sector into London because Singapore Airlines is not a carrier registered in an EU member state. For code-shares it becomes a little tricky. In short, it’s the operating carrier that ordinarily assumes the liability.

To get protection under the Regulation the passenger must:

  • be holding a confirmed reservation for the flight; and
  • have presented at check-in no later than 45 minutes prior to the published departure time (unless a revised departure time is communicated by the airline).

Importantly, the Regulation applies to any citizen travelling to or from Europe, not just European citizens.

Passenger plane goes on snowy runway field. Turku airport in winter, Finland

Coverage is broad

Denied Boarding - where a flight is oversold, the airline must first look for volunteers willing to give up their confirmed seat on that flight in return for what’s usually an offer of a free flight, a voucher, frequent flyer miles or any other mutually agreed settlement. Where the airline has no luck finding volunteers, it will offload passengers involuntarily- usually those that haven’t checked-in online or arrived at the airport early but, importantly, have still arrived at check-in before it closes. While such passengers, known as “involuntary offloads”, won’t get on that flight, they should be eligible for compensation for any resulting delays caused by the fact they were unable to travel on the flight on which they were booked and confirmed.

Delay - where an applicable flight is delayed for more than two hours, under the Regulation the extent to which an airline is obliged to provide assistance (such as food and refreshments) and compensation depends on the length of the flight and the amount of delay. The breakdown is as follows:

  • Assistance must be provided for delays of 2 hours or more in the case of flights up to 1500km.
  • Assistance must be provided for delays of 3 hours or more in the case of all intra-EU flights more than 1500km and all other flights between 1500km and 3000km.
  • Assistance must be provided for delays of 4 hours or more which are not covered above.

In addition to providing assistance, airlines are currently obliged to provide the following compensation:

  • For flights 1500km or less that are more than 3 hours delayed at the destination: €250
  • For flights within the EU more than 1500km or for all other flights between 1501-3500km where the delay is greater than 3 hours at the destination: €400
  • For flights over 3500km where the delay is more than 3 hours at the destination: €600.

Importantly, compensation and assistance are separate obligations.

Cancellation - where an applicable flight is cancelled, airlines are obliged to keep “trouble and inconvenience to passengers” to a minimum. In practice, this means that the airline is ordinarily obliged to inform affected passengers of cancellation before the scheduled time of departure, offer a reasonable re-routing at the “earliest opportunity” or a full refund (including a return flight to the point of departure) at the “earliest opportunity” where the cancellation is part of a multi-sector journey.

So, for example, when a passenger is travelling from London to Rome via Frankfurt on two separate flights and the Frankfurt to Rome sector is cancelled, the passenger should be entitled to a full refund of the fare as well as the right to be flown back to London to avoid being stranded in Frankfurt halfway through their journey.

For flight cancellations and/or denied boarding the following compensation currently applies:

  • For all flights 1 500 km or less: €250
  • For all intra EU flights of more than 1500 km, and all other flights between 1500-3500 km: €400
  • For all flights of 3,500km or more: €600

Where the airline are able to re-route a passenger on an alternative flight to their final destination and where the arrival time does not exceed the scheduled arrival time of the flight originally booked by:

  • Two hours, in respect of all flights of 1500 km or less; or
  • Three hours in respect to intra-EU flights of more than 1500 km and for all other flights between 1500 and 3500 km; or
  • By four hours, in respect of all flights of 3500km or more

…then the amount of compensation payable by the airline reduces by 50%.

In Part 2 of this article, we examine what exclusions apply to the Regulation - for which airlines are not obliged to provide compensation for delay and cancellation.