“Delayed” flashes next to your flight number on the Departures board. You immediately begin to wonder how you’ll keep the kids entertained and fed while you wait. And how long is the delay? Will you make the connecting flight that takes your family home?
Sadly, delays are becoming more frequent, with on-time arrivals accounting for as few as 80 percent of flights. Some airlines have even worse records. The highest number of seriously delayed flights in the United States originate in the major international airports: Boston (BOS), New York (JFK), Los Angeles (LAX), Washington, D.C. (IAD) and Chicago (ORD). The situation is no better in Europe, where the rapid increase in the number of commercial flights combines with strikes and normal maintenance issues to delay departures.
What can you do? Not much at the time, except to demand the airline provide your family with meal coupons – and a hotel room if the delay is prolonged overnight. But you can sometimes be compensated afterward for the inconvenience.
For flights within the United States, the chances are slim. U.S. rules are vague at best and with few teeth, so you’re largely dependent on the airline’s good will. If the delay is “significant” (a period that is not defined by the DOT), passengers are entitled to refunds for seat selection or checked baggage fees. As the rules are poorly defined, refund claims are handled on a case-by-case basis. In short, don’t hold your breath.
You’re in much better position if your flight is on a European carrier or is from a country in the European Union. The laws are quite explicit in your favor. Air congestion, not under the control of the airline, accounts for many delays, but when the cause is under the airline’s control, such as maintenance and crew problems, you are entitled to compensation.
Here’s how it works: Under European Union law EC 261, all passengers on flights into the E.U. on a European airline and out of the E.U. on any airline are due compensation for delays longer than three hours when the cause of the delay is under the airline’s control. This includes flight cancellations and denied boarding. U.S. airlines flying to European Union airports from the United States are not covered, but they are included if departing from an E.U. airport no matter what their destination.
The amount of compensation varies according to the distance and the length of the delay, with delays of more than four hours on flights of more than 3,500 km (2,175 miles) entitling passengers to €600 (about $700) each. Shorter distances and shorter delays decrease the amount incrementally to €250 for three-hour delays on flights of less than 1,500 km (932 miles).
Claims need to be filed with the airline, which must provide information and/or forms for this on their website. Be prepared for denial, but be persistent. Airlines will try to deny responsibility, offer a lesser amount or offer credit on future flights. The latter may sound good, but when you go to use the credit, you’ll find that it only applies to part of the fare, so you may actually be settling for about half the amount you’re entitled to.
Keep refusing these and suggest that instead you will seek professional help. If you don’t want to go through this hassle, you can turn your claim over to an agency such as AirHelp, which will handle the claim for you. They have access to detailed airline records and can verify the reasons for the delay. If your initial claim is denied, it may be worth paying the commission (deducted from your settlement) to have it professionally handled.
Compensation is per passenger and is not dependent on how much you paid for the flight. So although it doesn’t make your long wait at the airport any easier at the time, you can take some comfort knowing your family could receive $700 apiece for that delayed return from Paris or Madrid!
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