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Home » You Can Get Compensation For Airline Delays This Summer: Her

You Can Get Compensation For Airline Delays This Summer: Her

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I fly a lot, domestically and internationally, and sometimes things go wrong. Last week something went wrong when I was flying back from Europe, but unlike most delays and cancellations this one had a silver lining—nearly $650 in cash. But when I found out that several of my fellow travel companions had no idea they were owed compensation for their troubles, I realized leisure travelers needed more info.

Compensation is different from a refund, to which you are always entitled if your flight is cancelled (though you may still need to get home). Compensation is basically a penalty the airline is paying you for your inconvenience on top of delivering you (eventually) to where you want to go.

The U.S. trails much of the rest of the world when it comes to protecting consumers from the airlines they pay to fly, and the most recent Department of Transportation “final rule” that was announced to much hoopla in April 2024 mainly addresses “junk fees” and misleading marketing practices. This is important, but it doesn’t protect consumers who are actually flying and suffering through delays and cancellations. The most useful new rule mandates that airlines reimburse baggage fees for baggage that arrives at least 12 hours late (for domestic travel, international rules are more obtuse) but that doesn’t take effect until next April (2025).

But there’s good news right now, and it comes from the European Union—even if you fly on U.S. carriers.

Much of Europe is experiencing record tourism this year, includiing hotspots like Greece. Enjoy your … [+] vacation, but also know your rights as a traveler.

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Summer is peak travel season in Europe, and it’s also usually a peak time for airline cancellations and aviation disruptions, though so far 2024 has been gone amazingly well, with the lowest flight cancellation rate in a decade for the first half of the year (1.4%). However, that skips the busy recent Independence Day holiday weekend and includes almost none of the ultra-busy summer season. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced that the year would see “record-breaking air travel,” and last month CNN reported that the European Tourism Organization was seeing “record volumes of Americans coming to Europe.” Even before the summer began Greece hit all-time record tourism—up a staggering 24.5% for the first quarter over 2023.

According to aviation website SimpleFlying.com, the milestone of 600-plus flights a day from Europe to the US will finally be hit this summer, eight years after the 500-flight benchmark (with growth in between slowed by the pandemic). You can be pretty sure that even on a good day, not all 600 of those flights will be on time.

Sadly, the rule protecting travelers is not new, it’s been in place for almost two decades, but unfortunately, many Americans have no idea that they are covered, and many go through all the annoyances of being delayed and rerouted, and then, adding insult to injury, leave hundreds of dollars on the table. Don’t be one of those. And don’t expect the airline to tell you. If you are flying to Europe on any carrier this summer, or beyond, or flying within Europe, you need to know this.

Passengers on flights from the European Union, within the EU, and in many cases to the EU, are … [+] protected by financial compensation for airline delays and cancellations.

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Under regulation EU261, passengers on any flight originating in the EU (and many not originating in the EU) are entitled to compensation for delays or cancellations of various lengths, both within the EU and on flights to the U.S. and other destinations. There are 27 EU countries covered, plus vital non-EU countries in Europe such as Switzerland, Iceland and Norway, as well as remote islands affiliated with European countries, such as the Azores, Madeira and even several Caribbean islands (Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint-Martyin). France, Italy, Greece and just about every major tourism hotspot in Europe besides the United Kingdom are covered (Ireland is in the EU).

EU 261 covers U.S. travelers on both flights within the EU and from the EU to anywhere outside the EU (like the U.S.), regardless of what airline they are flying. Basically, if it starts in the EU, you are covered no matter who you fly or where you are going. But flights from outside of the EU, including the U.S., to the EU are also covered—if you are flying an EU carrier.

So, for myself, a high-level United flyer, if I opt for a Star Alliance partner such as TAP or Lufthansa or Austrian over United when I fly to Europe, I would be protected in both directions. For Delta frequent fliers the similar main options would be Air France, KLM or ITA, and for American Airlines, Finnair and Iberia. For codeshare flights the “airline” in this case is the one you actually fly on, not buy the ticket from, so if I fly Lufthansa on a United ticket to the EU I am covered but not vice versa (but coming home you are covered on every carrier).

And yes, frequent flier tickets paid for with miles are covered.

So, what do you get?

It’s a little bit complicated, but not so much. For cancellations or delays of two hours or more on flights under 932 miles (1,550km) you get €250 per person. For cancellations or delays of three hours or more on flights between 932 and 1864 miles (3.000km) you get €400. And for anything longer, like transatlantic, the delay needs to be four hours (or cancellation) and you get €600.

There are, of course, more rules. If you are rescheduled a day or more later, they have to give you a hotel and round-trip transportation. Subject to the delays and distances above, you also get meals.

Airports are not for sleeping. If your delay or cancellation is significant, the airline needs to … [+] get you a hotel room and meals.

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Just like rebooking and refunds when you fly, delays caused by things beyond the airline’s control, such as weather or air traffic control problems, do not qualify. Mechanical and operational issues do qualify, and so far in the past year, almost all of my really bad flight experiences have been mechanical or operational in nature—like the time recently when the crew boarded, the plane began boarding, and then they realized they didn’t have a captain on hand to fly the plane.

Just over a week ago, Delta canceled my Athens to Boston non-stop for mechanical reasons after a few hours on the tarmac and rescheduled it for approximately 28 hours later. To their credit, they handled it well and announced before we deplaned that they were putting everyone in a fairly luxurious hotel, including meals and transport (not that they had a legal choice), and because they had rescheduled an entire plane, people didn’t need to run around trying to change flights—unless like me, they wanted to get home the day they were scheduled.

I was able to switch to a partner flight on Air France (both airlines are in the SkyTeam alliance), but that added a change in Paris and a further tarmac delay upon arrival and I got home 7 hours late (unlike my two checked bags, one of which showed up eight days later while the other remains in limbo).

The experience was of course frustrating, but the act of getting the compensation to which I was entitled under EU law, €600 or about $643, was smooth as silk (almost). In fact, I did the online paperwork over the July 4th weekend and on Monday, less than 72 hours later, the funds had been electronically deposited in my bank account. Getting the $643 compensation has been much faster than resolving just about any other airline complaint I’ve ever had, or my ongoing luggage issue.

I’ve talked to other passengers who have had similarly smooth experiences. Melissa Klurman, a writer for ultra-popular Frequent Flyer site ThePointsGuy.com, wrote, “In the past when I’ve taken advantage of the EU 261 rule (yes, I’ve been delayed before), it’s been a very cut-and-dried transaction. I simply found the right place on the website to file my claim (legally, the airlines need to inform you of the policy and provide information on how to file); then, I received the U.S. dollar equivalent of the 600-euro compensation directly into my bank account. (You can also choose to have a check sent to you.)”

You have to go to the airline itself, via the website and file the claim, and finding the place to do so might be the hardest part of the entire process. For example, United has it under Customer Care, then Question, then International Passenger Rights, which might not be the most obvious search chain. Delta actually had a page for EU261 that was fairly easy to find, with a big button to submit a claim, and had that button worked I would have been impressed. But it didn’t and I had to call customer service and speak to a representative who had obviously gotten this call before she immediately acknowledged the button/no button issue and walked me through filing the claim, which again was counterintuitive and came down to basically writing a complaint note to a general customer service address mailbox. A lawyer friend suggests always including the words “to which I am legally entitled” when you do so. But once I did, I got an acknowledgment back from Delta and pretty quickly, cold hard cash. The filing process, including the call, probably took 20 minutes and next time will take three.

While the airline is obligated to give you the €600 (or whatever compensation you are due) if you want, that doesn’t mean they can’t negotiate. ThePointsGuy writer Klurman just reported that she filed a claim on United’s site and was given a choice of the €600 cash (direct deposit); 50,000 United miles; or a $1,000 United flight credit. For me, I’d take the credit because I know I am going to buy tickets on United fairly soon, and that nearly doubles the payout—if you are going to fly the airline again.

Back here is the U.S., the DOT is “also pursuing rulemakings,” that would, “make passenger compensation and amenities mandatory so that travelers are taken care of when airlines cause flight delays or cancellations.” But I wouldn’t hold my breath on those. In the meantime, if you fly to, from or within Europe, I hope it goes smoothly but when it doesn’t, at least get something for your troubles.

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