Depending on the circumstances and airline, you may be eligible for meal vouchers, hotel stays, or cash.
It’s a moment travelers dread: You're sitting at the gate, waiting to board your plane, and the terrible word "delayed" pops up on the screen. Even if you have carefully packed your bag for this exact occasion, it is unwelcome news.
Airlines of course try to avoid this situation. Delays don't benefit airlines or passengers, yet they are a somewhat frequent part of travel. Over the past decade, between 11.6 percent and 24.5 percent of flights in the U.S. have been delayed each year, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
If there’s an upside to be found here, perhaps it’s that travelers experiencing delays might be eligible for compensation. There's a lot of fine print involved, as well as some gray areas that are left open to interpretation by individual airlines. But at least meal vouchers or a hotel stay is something to ease the inconvenience of your delay.
Since the whole business of flight delay compensation is tricky, we've compiled a helpful set of need-to-know basics. Here’s hoping it helps you navigate your next unfortunate delay.
What types of delays are eligible for compensation?
Flights can be delayed for all sorts of reasons, but those reasons generally fall into two categories: controllable and uncontrollable. Controllable delays are those within the airline's control, including aircraft maintenance, crew scheduling, or aircraft preparation like fuel loading and cabin cleaning. Uncontrollable delays are those that the airline cannot control, such as weather, air traffic, and security-related events. Depending on your airline and where you're flying to or from, compensation may be awarded for some delays but not others.
Delays in the United States
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), "Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport; there are no federal requirements." So it's essentially a free-for-all when it comes to U.S.-based airlines. On a positive note, they've all set some standards for flight delay compensation, so you won't entirely be left in the dust if your flight is delayed.
Generally speaking, controllable delays are eligible for flight delay compensation, whereas uncontrollable delays are not. But again, each airline sets its own rules here, so you'll have to read the fine print on your airline's website. For a quick and easy shortcut, the DOT has published an Airline Cancellation and Delay Dashboard, which explains the basics of each airline's commitments to passengers when their flight is canceled or delayed. It also links to each airline's customer service plan, where the fine print about flight delay compensation is located.
But flight delay compensation doesn't just come down to the type of delay. It also has to do with the length of the delay. Each airline sets its own threshold for flight delay compensation in terms of length, though it’s typically set at three hours. The DOT has proposed instating federal regulations regarding the length of delays as relates to compensation. The thresholds would be three hours for domestic flights and six hours for international ones. But the proposed rule has not yet been approved nor gone into effect.
Delays in Europe
The European Union (EU), which has 27 member states across Europe, does regulate flight delay compensation. The regulation is known as EU261, and it protects all passengers flying within the EU, to the EU on an EU-based airline, or from the EU on any airline. EU261 also covers the non-EU countries of Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland, as well as the EU territories of Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Réunion Island, Mayotte, Saint-Martin (French Antilles), the Azores, Madeira, and the Canary Islands.
Like in the United States, compensation is not given to the above passengers when their flight is delayed due to uncontrollable reasons. EU261's official language defines these uncontrollable reasons as "extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken." Weather, political instability, and strikes (which are very common in Europe) are cited as extraordinary circumstances.
What kind of flight delay compensation are you owed in the United States?
As previously mentioned, since passenger compensation is not federally regulated in the U.S., it is entirely up to individual airlines to set their flight delay compensation policies. Despite this, most major U.S.-based airlines are in sync on what they offer passengers experiencing a delay. They currently all agree to issue meals or meal vouchers to passengers whose flights are delayed three hours or more, and all but Frontier have agreed to provide complimentary hotel accommodations if there's an overnight delay, plus ground transportation to those accommodations.
American Airlines has an even more robust flight delay compensation policy. If your flight is delayed for four hours or more, and you decide to reject the rebooking options provided to you, you will receive a cash refund for any remaining ticket value (that is, the unflown portion of your ticket), as well as fees paid for seat assignments or baggage.
Across all airlines, delayed passengers might also receive a "gesture of goodwill" in the form of frequent flyer miles or an airline credit — this is not obligatory, but it does happen on occasion. Sometimes airlines will automatically offer this, while other times you might have to file a complaint with the airline to receive it.
What kind of flight delay compensation are you owed in Europe?
If your delay is covered under EU261, you are eligible for cash compensation. You must be flying within the EU, to or from the EU on an EU-based airline, or from the EU on any airline, and you must arrive at your destination at least three hours later than your scheduled arrival. If you meet these eligibility criteria (among others), you can file a claim for cash compensation. If your delayed flight was 1,500 kilometers or less, you are eligible for 250 Euros; if between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometers, you may receive 400 Euros; and delayed flights longer than 3,500 kilometers may bring you 600 Euros.
Passengers on eligible delayed flights will also receive compensation in the form of meals. You will receive meals if your flight is delayed at least two hours (for flights under 1,500 kilometers); at least three hours for intra-EU flights over 1,500 kilometers; at least three hours for other flights between 1,500 and 3,000 kilometers; and at least four hours for longer flights.
If a delay requires you to fly out the following day, the airline must cover your hotel and ground transportation to that hotel. If the airline does not make the arrangements itself, you can submit receipts for reimbursement, "provided the expenses were necessary, reasonable and appropriate," according to the EU website.
Does travel insurance cover delays?
Most travel insurance coverage includes delays, but it does depend on your specific policy. Your delay will typically have to reach a minimum length before flight delay compensation kicks in — usually between six and 12 hours — and normally only after an airline's compensation has been provided. In other words, it's ancillary coverage. There is usually a maximum compensation amount that varies with each plan, and it can only be used to cover necessary expenses, such as meals, lodging, transportation, and personal items like medication or toiletries.
Keep in mind that your credit card may also provide travel insurance that covers delays. You would need to have paid for at least some of the flight with your credit card. For example, if you've paid for your flight in miles, then used your credit card for the taxes and fees, your credit card travel insurance policy may kick in.
Here's how to claim compensation.
The process of claiming compensation varies based on your situation, with factors including your airline, your origin and destination, and the length of your delay.
Meal Vouchers and Hotel Stays
If your flight is delayed and you're eligible for meal vouchers or overnight accommodations, an airline agent at the airport will be able to provide those to you. Unfortunately, the lines to receive compensation can get extremely long. In some cases, you may be able to pay out of pocket for reasonable meals and lodging, then be reimbursed by the airline. ("Reasonable" is the key word here — you probably won't be reimbursed for dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant or a presidential suite at a five-star hotel.) You'll need to read your airline's fine print to be sure. And don't expect reimbursement to happen quickly — it could take days or even weeks.
If your flight delay is covered by EU261, the airline should compensate you for meals, lodging, and transportation, and you can file a claim for reimbursement if it does not. As for cash compensation, you must file for that online. Claims usually take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to process.
Reimbursement from Travel Insurance
Keep all of your receipts incurred during a delay, as you will need to submit them as part of your travel insurance claim. You can usually do so online or via your insurance company's app. The period of time from filing a claim to payment, if your claim is approved, can take a few days to a few weeks.
Points or Miles as a Gesture of Goodwill
If you are not automatically given points or miles by your airline after a lengthy delay, you can always file a complaint with the airline, after which you might receive bonus points or miles. And if you’re looking for a bright side to a delay — at least you’re not dealing with a canceled flight.
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