EU261 Compensation: Your Rights on European Flights

Delays, cancellations, missed connections, and luggage that meet you on arrival – there is a multitude of reasons that can hamper an otherwise seamless travel experience.

When your plans go sideways, though, you may be eligible for monetary compensation, and so it is always good to be informed of your rights as an air passenger.

This article will outline EU Regulation 261/2004, commonly referred to as EU261, which offers you rights and protections as an air passenger when travelling to, from, or within the European Union.

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What Is EU261?

EU261 is legislation that was passed in 2004 that covers how airlines must compensate passengers for delays or cancellations for flights within, to, or from the European Union. It also outlines standards of treatment for anyone whose flight plans have been affected through no fault of their own.

You are covered by EU261 if you are travelling from a European Union airport on any airline, or if you are travelling to Europe on a European Union airline.

Switzerland and Norway are not EU member states, but due to bilateral agreements with the EU, EU261 applies to flights to/from these countries.

So, if you are travelling on an Air Canada flight from Paris to Toronto, you are covered by EU261, as you are departing from the European Union on any carrier.

If you are travelling from Toronto to Paris on an Air Canada flight, you aren’t covered by EU261 (but you are covered by the APPR and the Montreal Convention), as Air Canada is not a European Union-based airline.

Meanwhile, if you are travelling from Toronto to Lisbon on TAP Air Portugal, then you are covered by EU261, since TAP Air Portugal is a European Union-based carrier.

Further, in order to be eligible for any compensation, you must have a confirmed reservation, checked-in to your flight on time, and not be on any sort of airline employee discounts (e.g., stand-by travel) not available to the general public. Flights booked on loyalty programs are covered by EU261.

If you have met all of the eligibility requirements, you are eligible for compensation in the event of a delay or cancellation.

Flight Disruptions

If you are delayed in getting to your final destination, or if you flight is outright cancelled, you may be entitled to financial compensation under EU261.

When does EU261 compensation apply?

Similar to Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations, there is a laundry list of reasons that would exclude you from compensation. EU261 is generally regarded as the gold standard for passenger protection regulations, though, so the exclusion conditions are much more reasonable than in most jurisdictions.

If the airline can prove that the cause of the delay or cancellation was an extraordinary circumstance, such as strikes, riots, inclement weather, political instability, or anything else completely beyond their control, such as when the arrival airport doesn’t have a gate available, then you won’t be eligible for compensation.

Airlines must be able to prove that there is a direct link between the extraordinary circumstance and the flight delay or cancellation, in addition to the fact that it took all reasonable measures to avoid the delay or cancellation.

If you subscribe to ExpertFlyer, you can find the cause of a delay by looking under the “Flight Status” tab. After finding your flight, click on “View Additional Comments” to see raw notes and comments from the airline about the flight.

ExpertFlyer has a list of commonly used codes in their User Guide.

Lastly, if you are notified of a cancellation more than 14 days prior to departure, you are also not eligible for EU261 compensation.

If your cancellation or delay was not caused by an extraordinary circumstance, then you’re likely eligible for compensation.

What is the compensation for flight disruptions with EU261?

For flight delays, the amount of compensation depends on the actual distance of your flight and the length of the delay you face:

  • For short haul flights (between 0–1,500 kilometres in distance flown), you are entitled to €250 ($330) in compensation if you are delayed by more than two hours.

  • For medium-haul flights (1,500–3,500 kilometres in distance flown), you are entitled to €400 ($527) if you have been delayed by at least three hours.

  • For long-haul flights (3,500+ kilometres in distance flown), your delay must be greater than four hours, in which case you would be entitled to a whopping €600 ($790) for the inconvenience.

For any delays of greater than five hours, you are entitled to a full refund, should you wish to cancel your travel plans altogether.

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The length of your delay is determined by the difference between your scheduled arrival time and the time the aircraft’s doors are opened at your final destination.

So, even if you are sitting at the gate, you are still racking up delay minutes until the doors are opened. Or, if you experience a delay on a connecting flight that causes you to miss your next flight, the delay is calculated by the time the doors open at your final destination.

Similarly, if your flight has been cancelled, you are entitled to standards of treatment, as well as the option of a refund.

Airlines must cover accommodations for some delays and cancellations under EU261

If your flight has been cancelled for any reason, you may choose from being rerouted on alternative flights or a refund to the original method of payment. If you opt for a refund, the airline must return the funds at their earliest opportunity. 

In some cases, if you are notified of a flight cancellation within 14 days of departure, then you are also entitled to compensation if you will still be delayed in getting to your final destination as a result.

If you are notified between one and two weeks prior to departure, you are not eligible for compensation, but are still eligible for a refund, if:

  • You will depart no more than two hours later than your original departure time, and
  • You will arrive no more than four hours later than your original arrival time

If you are notified between within one week prior to departure, you are not eligible for compensation, but are still eligible for a refund, if:

  • You will depart no more than one hour later than your original departure time, and
  • You will arrive no more than two hours later than your original arrival time

Furthermore, if the result of the cancellation is due to extraordinary circumstances that the airline could not reasonably avoid, you are not eligible for compensation.

If none of the above exclusions apply to you, the compensation amounts are the same as above for flight delays €250 for short-haul flights, €400 for medium-haul flights, and €600 for long-haul flights.

What else must airlines provide during flight disruptions?

In addition to monetary compensation for flight delays and cancellations, you are entitled to a standard of care under EU261.

The airline must offer you food and drink, which likely come in the form of vouchers to redeem at the airport, that are proportional to the time of the delay.

In the event of an overnight delay, you must be provided with accommodation, as well as transportation to and from the hotel.

While this is likely a relic of the past, airlines must also provide access to a telephone, fax machine, or email. You can make up to two brief phone calls or send two faxes or emails.

The Montreal Convention offers similar protections, so make sure to be familiar with both to maximize your compensation.

Denied Boarding

Denied boarding is a situation where a passenger with a confirmed ticket is removed from the flight. This is usually the result of airlines overselling a flight, or any other situation when there is not enough seats for everyone who is meant to be on the flight.

Airlines must seek volunteers to give up their seat. If you’re not in a rush to reach your final destination, you can possibly come out with some extra spending money, and maybe even finesse your way into a higher class of service for the trouble.

If you are denied boarding, ask for an upgrade for the inconvenience

The minimum amount of compensation for passengers who have been denied boarding is the same as for delays and cancellations:

  • For short haul flights (between 0–1,500 kilometres in distance flown), you are entitled to €250 ($330) in compensation if you are delayed by more than two hours.

  • For medium-haul flights (1,500–3,500 kilometres in distance flown), you are entitled to €400 ($527) if you have been delayed by at least three hours.

  • For long-haul flights (3,500+ kilometres in distance flown), your delay must be greater than four hours, in which case you would be entitled to a whopping €600 ($790) for the inconvenience.

In addition to monetary compensation, you are also entitled to standards of treatment, such as food and drink, Wi-Fi, and accommodation, as well as the option to refund your booking. 

Lost, Damaged, or Delayed Luggage

If your baggage is lost, delayed, or damaged on flights that are covered under EU261, there are protections in place.

Should your carry-on luggage become damaged and the airline is at fault, they are liable to cover the cost of repair or replace it entirely. The maximum liability is €1,300 ($1,728)

If your baggage is delayed or lost, you can claim damages up to €1,300 ($1,728). 

There is no standard format for baggage claims, so you’ll have to find the airline’s claim form. Be sure to initiate your claim before leaving the airport, and keep all receipts for items purchased during your bag’s delay.

For lost or damaged luggage, you must submit a written claim within seven days of the incident. For delayed luggage, you have up to 21 days to file a written claim.

The liability for baggage is governed under the Montreal Convention.

How to Claim Compensation with EU261

Most airlines have EU261 information on their websites, and a quick Google search of “<airline name> EU261” will likely take you where you want to go. Keep your boarding pass handy, as you’ll need to include the information from your ticket to your claim.

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You will have to fill out a form and submit it to the airline for processing. They may approve your claim right away, or they may refuse it.

Airlines aren’t necessarily enthusiastic about handing over a bunch of cash, even if it’s required by law. Some airlines may outright deny your claim unless you keep pressing for proof, so prepare to be persistent.

After submitting your claim, be sure to keep your boarding passes and your original booking documents. 

If your claim is approved, the airline must submit payment within seven days. They can offer you vouchers, but they must offer you cash, too.

The airline may provide reasons for your claim to be denied, likely in the form of an extraordinary circumstance. Here, it’s best to have done your homework and dig for the actual cause of the delay or cancellation.

If you are not satisfied with the airline’s response, you can escalate your claim for compensation to a National Enforcement Body, who will seek a resolution with the airline on your behalf.

Each country has its own body, so you’ll have to submit your claim to the body of the country where the airline is based. A list of National Enforcement Bodies can be found on the European Commission’s website.

If your claim is approved, the money must be paid by cheque or bank transfer. It can take a few days for the wire to go through, and you may need to contact your bank for some information that the airline needs for the transfer.

The amount of effort needed to make a claim is pretty minimal. You may have seen ads for services who will file the claim for you, sometimes known as ‘claim mills’ – if you don’t get compensation, then neither do they.

But, if you do, prepare to say au revoir to a good chunk of your cash. I would strongly recommend pursuing your own claim, especially since there are National Enforcement Bodies that will argue on your behalf for free and the process isn’t difficult to follow.

Conclusion

While flight delays and cancellations are at best mildly frustrating at best, and devastating to travel plans at worst, there are thankfully several protections in place that favour us as passengers. If you are flying to or from Europe, be sure to become familiar with what is covered under EU261, as you could wind up with a nice chunk of change for relatively little effort if you happen to be delayed along the way.

In comparison to Canada’s Airline Passenger Protection Regulations, Europe’s EU261 is much more liberal with reasons that warrant compensation. Indeed, it is widely considered to be the golden standard for passenger protection regulations worldwide.