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Air passenger rights: What travellers are entitled to

Imagine this: You are looking forward to your upcoming holiday, which you have planned and booked well in advance – and then there is a delay, the flight gets canceled, there was an overbooking error or the airport employees are going on strike. Who hasn't experienced this? No matter what, the holiday can no longer take place as planned.

If that happens, consumers are entitled to compensation. But they need to know which rights in particular they have as an airline passenger – and how to enforce them. Regulation (EC) No. 261/2004 of the European Parliament provides information on this. Here is a summary of the most important rights and claims you can assert as an air passenger.

Claims in the event of delay

If the flight is delayed, the claims against the airline depend first of all on the length of the booked flight as well as the duration of the delay:

• For a flight distance of up to 1,500 kilometres, you may file a claim if the departure is delayed by more than two hours,
• for further routes within the European Union (EU) or between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometres, the departure must be delayed by more than three hours
• for a flight distance of more than 3,500 kilometres, the departure delay must be more than four hours.

Concretely, you are principally entitled to support services. This means the airline must provide support on site with appropriate meals and the possibility to make two free phone calls or send faxes. If the delay stretches out long into the night, the airline must also provide overnight accommodation.

On the other hand, according to the EU Regulation on Air Passenger Rights, the following lump-sum compensation claims exist if the flight arrives at the final destination with a delay of more than three hours:

• 250 euros for a flight distance of up to 1,500 kilometres
• 400 euros for a longer route within the EU up to 3,500 kilometres
• 600 euros for flight distances longer than 3,500 kilometres

This claim is not actually provided for in the Air Passenger Rights Regulation – it instead is based on a decision of the European Court of Justice: the Court had determined that such a long delay was equivalent to a cancellation of the flight.

In the event of a delay of more than five hours, the journey may be cancelled. Passengers are entitled to a refund of the ticket price within seven days and, if applicable, a free return flight to the airport of departure.

Claims in the event of cancellation

If the flight is cancelled by the airline, the airline must first offer the choice between the following options:

• A flight that is close in time to the booked departure time. If you choose this option, the airline must also provide supplies, a means of telecommunication and, if necessary, accommodation.
• A flight at a later date.
• Or the refund of your ticket price.

In addition, a lump-sum compensation payment – possibly reduced by half – may be due. But this is where it often gets complicated. In many cases, the airlines invoke extraordinary circumstances (which can include not only snow chaos but also an air traffic controllers' strike). The problem is that oftentimes this does not actually reflect the situation at hand. For example, technical problems or the illness of a pilot are not considered extraordinary circumstances, but the airline companies tend to cite them as a reason.

Claims in the event of overbooking

Airlines often sell more seats in advance of the flight than are actually available on board. This is to avoid the costly circumstance of ending up with empty seats on their planes. If all the passengers turn up, the company is faced with a problem – too many passengers and too few seats. Oftentimes, the airline tries for a little trick: They offer vouchers or cash for a later flight. The problem is that if a passenger accepts this offer, the case automatically becomes a voluntary waiver of carriage, which excludes them of later financial compensation.

Should the passenger decline the offer, the case becomes one of involuntary denied boarding. In this case, the same rights to alternative offers, withdrawal, appropriate boarding, and financial compensation exist as they would in the case of a delay or cancellation of the flight.

Limitation period

Passenger rights in the event of delays or cancellations can still be asserted up to three years later.

Refunds come only once

According to a decision of the European Court of Justice, if there is a claim for reimbursement of ticket costs against the tour operator, this cannot also be reimbursed by the airline.

This article is from the 1/2023 issue of the magazine "Life Abroad".

The magazine is published four times a year free of charge with many informative articles on foreign topics.

It is published by the BDAE, the expert for protection abroad.