How to make a claim for delayed flights

Published by Hugh Morris on 24 August 2015.
Last updated on 24 August 2015

How to make a claim for delayed flights

Your plane is delayed for hours causing you to miss a connecting transfer; your flight is cancelled and there's not another one until tomorrow; you're still standing by the baggage carousel – bagless - when it stops coughing out luggage.

While there are rarely steps to take at the time to mitigate the anxiety and unhappiness of something threatening to ruin your holiday, if you know what to do when your holiday goes wrong you can be comforted by the fact there are compensation protocols and complaints procedures designed to help you.

Many holidaymakers are unaware of EU laws governing compensation, so it's reassuring to know that the EU and the UK's aviation body, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), have got your back.

It is a fluid situation, ever-changing thanks to case law, legal battles and appeals but, generally, the EU says (more precisely, the Flight Delay Compensation Regulation No 261/2004) that you are entitled to financial reparations if your flight is delayed – the value depending on the distance of the flight and the length of delay.

This applies to any flight departing from an airport within the EU, no matter the airline, as well as flights departing from an airport outside the EU for a destination within the EU, so long as the airline has an EU operating licence.

Long story, short; you are entitled to ¤250 (£176) if your flight of less than 1,500km (London to Paris, for example) from within the EU is delayed by more than three hours. The value rises to ¤400 (£281) for flights up to 3,500km (say, to Athens), then ¤600 (£422) if you fly further than 3,500km (to New York, perhaps) and the delay is greater than four hours.

These claims are only valid if the delay is the airline's fault – this includes some technical faults but not due to 'extraordinary circumstances', a debatable term but one that covers the majority of eventualities, bar say a giant ash cloud caused by an Icelandic volcano.

If your flight is cancelled outright, you are protected by the EU's Denied Boarding Regulations, whereby an airline is responsible for providing compensation and/or assistance, depending on the circumstances. Generally, you are entitled to a full refund on your ticket, a re-routing to your destination at the earliest possible convenience, as well as free transfers and accommodation necessary to your situation. If your flight is cancelled 14 days prior to departure, you will be entitled to a refund but not compensation.

In the case of cancellation or delay, you are also entitled to "reimbursement for care and assistance", to quote the CAA. It states: "If you paid for food, drink or accommodation that your airline should have provided, you can claim reasonable costs back." The operative word here is reasonable – a delay of three hours does not give you carte blanche to have oysters and champagne at the airport bar and expect the carrier to pay. Be sensible and keep all receipts.

The legislation and airline commitment to following it is admirable. However, it is worth considering further the term 'extraordinary circumstances'. In 2014, a case at the Supreme Court concerning budget airline Jet2 found that such circumstances could be extended to include a technical failure that could have been foreseen or preventable.

Jet2 requested the right to appeal but the Supreme Court refused to hear it. This illustrates the scope airlines have to refuting compensation and claiming 'extraordinary circumstances'. According to the European Commission, an extraordinary circumstance is one that meets three criteria: unpredictable, unavoidable and external. A list of such circumstances can be found on the EC website ( air/doc/neb-extraordinary-circumstances-list.pdf ) but, generally speaking, it includes strikes, poor weather or security issues.

A recent example of poor weather affecting flights out of Heathrow in early June was deemed extraordinary and airlines were not found to be liable. Hopefully, this gives you some insight as to the flexibility of these rules.

So you’ve been delayed - how do you claim?

From the moment something goes wrong, create a record of what has happened and why, what you have been told, by whom, when and where. This information will be incredibly useful when you come to apply for compensation. If you buy food and drink to keep your family refreshed during a delay, keep all receipts and be reasonable in your purchases.

To avoid wasting your time, research your rights relevant to what happened and consider the circumstances. The CAA says you should then contact your airline directly on how best to claim. "Many airlines will have claims procedure for you to follow," says its advice.

"Often, a standard claim form is available. If so, using it will ensure you provide all the information the airline needs to process your claim."

It says if no standard procedure is available, it may be best to make initial contact by email, so you have a record of the communication. If you send a letter, always keep a copy. Confidence in your rights and the facts of the event will put you in the best position to claim.

If your claim is successful, the airline will normally send you a cheque. If your claim is unsuccessful, it is then best to contact the CAA if you still believe your claim to be valid. The CAA will fight your corner and provide advice and assistance. If your case continues, you may end up considering taking your airline to court but bear in mind the cost – both financially and of time – of following this route.

Another option is to take your case to one of the ever-growing number of solicitors who deal with travel claims, a growth considered a scourge by airlines, which say they contribute to a rise in costs within the aviation industry, which are then passed on to the passenger. In 2011, budget airline Ryanair introduced a levy of €¤2 on its tickets to cover the costs of increased legislation.

While knowing your rights, the assistance of the CAA and the cooperation of the airlines should be sufficient to claim the compensation you deserve, the legal strength and expertise of solicitors can be of use, should you not want to concern yourself with the ins and outs of a tricky claim.

Another line of compensation – and potential holiday doom – is lost luggage. Though international stats show that the number of 'mishandled bags' is falling, despite an increasing number of passengers, it is still not the rarest travel trauma.

On the upside, 85% of bags which don't turn up at the airport when you do are returned to their owners within 36 hours, according to specialist in air transport communications SITA, which follows lost baggage trends. And it is only 5% of bags that are never seen again.

If you do find your baggage is missing, report it to the airline's desk at the airport or a lost luggage office as soon as possible. Be sure to fill in a Property Irregularity Report. Start to make a note of the belongings in your missing case – and an approximate value.

Airlines will consider your bag 'irretrievably lost' after 21 days. If your bag does not turn up, you are entitled to £1,000 compensation, though it is rare to receive this much. You must claim from your airline within seven days for lost, stolen or damaged bags – however, more often than not the airline will encourage you to go through your travel insurance, through which you might have to pay an excess but arguably have a better chance of more compensation.

Airlines (or your travel insurer) may also provide compensation for any items you have to buy to cover yourself before your bag turns up. As with food and drink during flight delays, be sensible and keep receipts.