29 August 2023

Flight delays – what are my consumer rights?

29 August 2023

Thousands of passengers have been delayed and stranded by the problems with the air traffic control system, with warnings the disruption could last for days.

Where should consumers turn for help, and what can they expect airlines to do?

– What are the rules that govern how airlines should help their passengers?

Consumer rights relating to flights from the UK and EU airports are set by rules known as EC261, which provide important safeguards to passengers that are applicable at all times.

Broadly, airlines should do everything they can to keep their passengers up to date on the situation, providing them with food and accommodation while waiting and doing their best to get them to their destination as quickly as possible.

– I’ve heard the current problems are classified as ‘extraordinary circumstances’. What does this mean for me?

While EC261 does provide for cash compensation in some circumstances, this does not apply when cancellations or long delays are due to ‘extraordinary circumstances’ – or those beyond the airline’s control.

– So what can I expect?

Airlines have a duty of care to passengers who are delayed or face cancellation regardless of the reason.

This means airlines must provide information to their passengers on their rights as well as care and assistance, such as providing meals, allowing for travellers to communicate messages, and providing hotel accommodation – including transfers to and from the hotel – for overnight delays.

– My flight has been delayed by hours and I’m sitting at the airport. What should the airline be doing to help me?

Regardless of the cause, passengers are entitled to meals and, if necessary, accommodation until the flight departs.

The point at which airlines must step in with help depends on the length of the journey: this should be after a two-hour delay on short flights up to 1,500km, after three hours for flights of between 1,500km and 3,500km, and four hours on longer flights.

– What are my flight options?

Whether or not the disruption is caused by “extraordinary circumstances”, the airline must get passengers to their destination as quickly as possible.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) advises that when a flight is cancelled, passengers must be offered the choice of a refund, alternative flights at the earliest opportunity, or re-routing at a later date, subject to availability.

This means re-routing on any airline, not just the one you originally booked with. For example, if your booking is with Ryanair, but a BA, easyJet or Wizz flight gets you back earlier, then Ryanair should put you on it.

Airlines must help passengers by clearly setting out these options to them.

It is also open to airlines to offer incentives to passengers to encourage them to fly at a later date, for example through providing vouchers of a higher value.

If you are flown to a different arrival airport, the airline must also meet reasonable onward travel costs.

– My airline has told me it cannot fly me home today. What should I do?

If you need to make your own arrangements, the airline should refund reasonable costs. You should retain copies of all receipts.

This means booking the cheapest alternative ticket and hotel possible – attempting to take advantage of the situation by booking business class seats and a luxury hotel would be unwise as you would need to show evidence that they were the only remaining options.

– My delay means I have to miss work. Am I entitled to be paid if I can’t turn up due to the disruption?

Employees should talk to their employer about working from where they are (if possible), taking leave or making time up later if they cannot get to work because of travel disruption.

Rights about travel disruption can be outlined in the employment contract – employees should check this first.

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