Get money back for delayed flights

The surprise that comes as friends, family and colleagues tell of a holiday with no cancellations, complications or delays shows just how used to plans going awry we are.

The bulk of these problems is caused by delayed or cancelled flights and missed connections, which can be blamed on reasons ranging from volcanic ash clouds to missing pilots.

While all any of us ever want is for our holidays to run smoothly, it's important to know your rights and what compensation you're entitled to when things go wrong.

Thankfully, holidaymakers' rights to compensation have never been stronger, following a European Court of Justice ruling that has enshrined in law a three-hour delay being the equivalent of a cancelled flight when it comes to compensation - and that airline passengers can claim retrospectively for previous delays.

Here, we look at what your rights are when flying in Europe and how to fight for them.

How does it work?

Under EU regulation 261/2004, passengers are entitled to compensation from the airline if a flight is cancelled or heavily delayed.

The concept that a three-hour delay is as good as a cancelled flight had not been tested in the UK until earlier this year, when a couple won a ruling against Thomas Cook for a delayed flight from 2009. The couple were awarded £680 in compensation and expenses by a court in Stoke-on-Trent. This means airlines awaiting legal confirmation of the compensation law may now have to settle thousands of pending delay claims.

What can I claim for and how much?

The amount you can claim depends on how long you were delayed for and how far you were travelling. It ranges from €250 (£210) for a flight less than 1,500km and delayed by more than three hours, €400 for the same delay for a flight between 1,500km and 3,500km, to €600 for delays longer than four hours for flights further than 3,500km.

But there may also be additional compensation available in the form of expenses. "For all delays, airlines are obliged to look after their passengers, offering food and refreshments, and if the delays extend overnight, accommodation," explains Nic Stevenson, spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Authority, the UK's aviation regulator.

"If they do not provide this, passengers should pay for their own refreshments and accommodation, keep their receipts and then make a claim for reasonable expenses."

Does it matter whose fault the delay is?

Yes, compensation is only available when the delay is the fault of the airline. If the flight is delayed due to 'extraordinary circumstances', for example, a storm or volcanic ash cloud, then the airline would not be liable.

However, the definition of 'extraordinary circumstances' can be hazy and airlines might use it, even though they are responsible. For example, if a flight was cancelled in Manchester due to poor weather, and the knock-on effect is a cancelled flight out of Barcelona, a passenger might be able to argue the airline had not taken reasonable measures to avoid its Barcelona flight from being cancelled and so is responsible.

Hendrik Noorderhaven, chief executive of EU Claim, a delay compensation firm currently handling 5,400 cases through the courts, says passengers need to stand strong in the face of airlines: "Some airlines are fair and square but some will fight your claim. Passengers can be put on the back foot very easily about the explanation for the delay, by the pilot, the airport staff, anyone, and the majority of people are then not claiming."

An airline ticket is just like any other product, he explains: "If you bought a TV and the colour red wasn't working, you would take it back. So if you buy a ticket and the airline does not deliver on the promises made on purchase, you have a right to be compensated."

Always challenge the airline if it claims 'extraordinary circumstances' as often part of the delay falls under the responsibility of the airline, even if the airline says it is a technical fault. Airport strikes, political instability and security risks are some of the situations that fall under 'extraordinary circumstances', according to the rules.

What if my flight was delayed by less than three horus but I missed my connecting flight?
The delay is counted by the number of hours late on arrival. So, if you are on a through ticket you should be re-routed on to a later connection, and then if the overall delay is greater than three hours you will be eligible for the same compensation as before - likewise when it comes to expenses and refreshments.

What if my flight was cancelled?

Nic Stevenson says: "You have the same rights to be looked after, re-routed if on a through ticket and, in some circumstances, compensated. Again the amounts depend on the distance travelled." At this point, it's worth bearing in mind your expenses must be reasonable - hitting the town wherever you've been plonked by your cancelled flight will probably not be covered by the airline.

Can I claim for flights in the past?

Yes, but only within a certain timeframe. UK courts will only hear cases if the initial court action is within six years of the flight's scheduled date. But given the number of pending claims and backlog of cases, it's worth contacting your airline if the delay is as far back as 2007.

What to do in the event of a delay and how to claim

Hendrik Noorderhaven, chief executive at EU Claim, advises you to be on guard in the case of a delay. "If something happens, ask for your rights. If you are delayed at an airport, ask for your rights, ask for advice, take photos, take notes, talk to other passengers - organise yourself because you will be stronger together."

You don't need to use a claim firm. Contact the airline with passenger and flight details and copies of any receipts and/or booking confirmations. This will help the airline identify your flight as quickly as possible. As with approaching any company for compensation, arm yourself with the details and your rights.

If you are unable to resolve the claim with the airline or are unhappy with the airline's response, the Civil Aviation Authority provides a free service to passengers having trouble solving complaints.

Your Comments

I sent letters on 28 March and 20 April re. a flight from Majorca, which left approximately 90 passengers behind, including my husband and I.  The plane was not adequate for the no. of passengers returning from a Thomson holiday.  I also sent two emails. These all went unanswered.  As soon as I put a comment of Thomson's wall on Facebook, they got in touch.  Early days but maybe something will happen now.