EC Regulation 261 (EC 261) is a law on air passenger rights that all EU member states must abide by.
EC 261 states that air passengers must be financially compensated if their flight is canceled or overbooked (unless the cancellation is due to extraordinary circumstances beyond the airline’s control).
Additionally, the EU’s Court of Justice (EUCJ) ruled in 2012 that passengers whose flight arrives three hours late or more are also entitled to financial compensation (unless the delay is due to extraordinary circumstances beyond the airline’s control).
The main objective of the ruling was to improve passenger protection rights across Europe and to harmonize the law among EU member states. Since this law was implemented in 2005, there have been many breakthrough judgements against airlines in the EUCJ, dramatically changing the landscape of air passenger rights.
We’ve summarized the most important cases in the Breakthrough Rulings section.
When does the law apply?
The law on air passenger rights can be confusing and, at times, seem contradictory. That’s what makes it difficult to understand when you’re entitled to compensation and what compensation you’re entitled to (with no help from airlines, who are legally obligated to inform you of these rights but often fail to do so comprehensively).
The result? Less than 1% of eligible air passengers receive the compensation that is rightfully theirs!
Because of this confusion, it bears repeating that you may be eligible for financial compensation if your flight is overbooked, canceled, or delayed by more than three hours (unless the delay was caused by extraordinary circumstances beyond the airline’s control).
Where does the law apply?
Since EC 261 is a European law, it only applies to EU airspace.
However, you don`t have to be an EU citizen to claim compensation . If your flight departs from any airport in the EU or if your flight arrives at any airport in the EU (or from Iceland, Norway, or Switzerland), then you could be eligible for financial compensation if your flight is overbooked, canceled, or delayed by more than three hours.
Airline and origin EU airline non-EU airline
From outside EU to outside EU no no
From outside EU to inside EU yes no
From inside EU to outside EU yes yes
From inside EU to inside EU yes yes
What am I entitled to?
Compensation for delayed, canceled, or overbooked flights ranges from €250 to €600 per passenger. The amount varies according to the distance of your flight and the length of the delay at your final destination. That compensation is in addition to customer care while you wait. This should include:
– Accommodation (if rebooked to the next day)
– Transport to your accommodation
– Phone call
In addition, if you are denied boarding, your flight is cancelled or arrives more than 3 hours late on arrival at the final destination stated on your ticket, you may be entitled to compensation of EUR 250 – 600, depending on the distance of the flight:
Within the EU
1,500 km or less – EUR 250
over 1,500 km – EUR 400
Between EU airport and non-EU airport
1,500 km or less – EUR 250
1,500 – 3,500 km – EUR 400
over 3,500 km – EUR 600
** The compensation may be halved by the airline in case the delay, after offered and accepted re-routing, was less than 2, 3 or 4 hours depending on the length of the flight.
You are not entitled to compensation if the airline notified you about the cancelation 14 days or more before the scheduled flight (or if the airline offered an alternative for the same route and a similar schedule to the original flight).
For cancellations that occur due to extraordinary circumstances, the airline must still arrange for one of the following:
– a ticket refund (in full or for the part you couldn’t use)
– the soonest possible alternative transport to your final destination
– a new ticket for the later date of your preference, subject to seat availability
Even in extraordinary circumstances, airlines must provide assistance when needed while you are waiting for your alternative transport. The lowdown on overbooking When a flight has been overbooked, airlines will first seek volunteers to trade their confirmed reservations for other benefits. Airlines must offer the volunteers a choice between a full refund and re-routing.
If you volunteer for re-routing, the airline must provide further assistance when appropriate, includingfood, access to a telephone, hotel accommodation, and transportation between the airport and the hotel.
If you opt not to give up your confirmed reservation and are denied boarding, you are instantly entitled to compensation between €250 and €600 per passenger, as well as a full refund of your confirmed reservation.
Connecting flights are generally the same as direct flights, except for one key difference:
Since connecting flights involve multiple flights and airlines, as well as stops inside and outside of the EU, your eligibility for compensation changes.
Whether youre on a direct or connecting flight, your eligibility for compensation under EC 261/2004 requires that your origin or final destination be located in the EU. Additionally, for connecting flights, your eligibility for compensation due to delay, cancellation, or overbooking depends on the total delay en route to your final destination.*
* The term “final destination” applies to the final destination of your flights with one airline. If your connecting flight is with a different airline, then that flight is perceived as being separate. In that case, each individual flight has its own origin and final destination to which these laws apply.
CONNECTING FLIGHTS EU airline non-EU airline
From outside EU to outside EU (stop inside EU) yes yes, if the delay/cancellation occurred from inside EU
From outside EU to outside EU (stop outside EU) yes no
From outside EU to inside EU (stop inside EU) yes yes, if the delay/cancellation occurred from inside EU
From outside EU to inside EU (stop outside EU) yes no
From inside EU to inside EU (stop inside EU) yes yes
From inside EU to inside EU (stop outside EU) yes yes
Why is it so difficult to get compensation?
Airlines openly contest the recent EU legislation and have even refused to pay compensation after being ordered to do so by the EUCJ. They can get away with this because they assume that individual air passengers are likely to avoid the hassle of challenging a rejection in court.
Most claims are rejected through the “extraordinary circumstances” provision. But what does “extraordinary circumstances” really mean?
Extraordinary circumstances are caused by events that the airline can’t control and for which they are not at fault. Examples include extreme weather conditions, political unrest, and employee strikes.
Statute of limitations
The time limits within which compensation can be sought for delayed, canceled, and overbooked flights is determined by the national laws of each EU member state.
This ruling came from a November 2012 decision claiming that compensation measures laid down in Articles 5 and 7 of EC 261 fall “outside the scope of the Warsaw and Montreal Conventions.” In other words, the two-year statute of limitations referred to in Article 29 of the Warsaw Convention and Article 35 of The Montreal Convention does not apply.
How to get a refund or compensation
Submit an air passenger rights EU complaint form [119 KB] to your airline – and make sure you keep a copy for yourself.
If this doesn’t work, or you aren’t satisfied with the reply, you can complain to the national enforcement body [222 KB] in the EU country where the incident took place.
Or, if the incident happened at an airport of departure outside the EU but involved an EU airline, you can send a complaint to the relevant national enforcement body [222 KB] in the EU country you were travelling to.
Lost or damaged registered luggage
If your registered luggage is lost, damaged or delayed, you may be entitled to compensation from the airline, up to about EUR 1 220
Exception – if damage is caused by an inherent defect in the baggage itself.
Hand baggage (including personal items)
The carrier is liable if it was responsible for the damage.
Make sure to file your claim within 7 days of receiving your luggage (or 21 days if your luggage was delayed).
If you wish to pursue other legal action, you must do so within 2 years of the date your luggage arrives.
If you are travelling with expensive items, you might be able – for a fee – to obtain a compensation limit higher than EUR 1 220 by making a special advance declaration to the airline – at the latest when you check in. Though the best thing is really to take out private travel insurance.
There is no standard form for the special declaration. It is up to the airlines to choose the type of form they provide.