I’m flying from San Francisco to Amsterdam with United Airlines. We’ve been waiting in front of the gate for quite a while, and people are getting restless by the lack of movement. After twenty minutes in this very hot and very crowded plane, a voice cracks through the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. We are experiencing mechanical issues and will have to ask you to leave this aircraft until further notice. We apologize for the delay.” And there we go. The aerodynamic whale spits out its 200+ passengers back unto land.
There’s no way I can catch my connecting flight in Houston, so I dial Customer Service. They rebook me for a flight to Frankfurt and to Amsterdam from there. It all sounds great until I hear my new arrival time. This mechanical issue is going to cost me six hours of precious family time. Needless to say, I wasn’t very happy.
Another minor detail was that I can’t retrieve both my check-in and the carry-on I was obligated to check in because the overhead bins were already full. The baggage that’s filled with expensive and fragile film gear is now on an airplane I’m no longer on and going to a city I’m no longer going to. I expressed my discontent to the Customer Service, and asked what they would do to compensate. They gave me a meal voucher.
When I finally arrived in the Netherlands, with a six hour delay and no baggage, my parents reminded me that my brother had successfully made a claim of 600 euros because of a similar delay with the same airline. Ready for the silver lining around this terrible flight, I did a little research about this compensation.
What I found out is something I want to share with every traveler. I discovered that an air passenger has a lot more rights than you probably know.
Flight to/from Europe:
The EU has a law that protects air passengers and makes sure they get compensated properly if the airline is at fault for a delay, cancellation or overbooked airplane. You don’t have to be an European Citizen to be eligible, as long as your airline is European and/or you depart or arrive in an airport in an EU nation.
If your flight is delayed by more than two hours, your airline is legally required to provide food, refreshments and access to email and phone calls. Most airlines won’t offer this unless you ask for it, and let them know that you are aware of your legal right to this. Besides any compensation we’ll talk about later, they are also required to provide accommodation and transportation to that accommodation if you’re rebooked to a flight happening the following day.
It really gets interesting when there’s a delay of three hours or more. Depending on the length of your flight, you have a right to compensation between 250-600 euros (265-640 dollar). If you’re delayed by more than five hours, you are actually not even required to take the flight anymore. This means that they need to refund you for the full cost of your flight, as well as any other flights that you can’t take because of it.
There are a few exceptions, which are called ‘extraordinary circumstances’. The most common one is if the delay is caused by bad weather, since the airline is not at fault and cannot be held responsible for this.
In my example, I had a delay of more than 5 hours on a transatlantic flight because of a mechanical issue, which is not an extraordinary circumstance. I am filing a claim with United Airlines to get compensated 600 euros because of it.
How to file a claim with your airline
You should write the operating airline that caused the delay to request financial compensation. I’d recommend sending an official letter by mail instead of sending an e-mail, since most of these claims will be decided upon their judgement of how serious you are about it (a.k.a. how big the chance is this would end up in court).
You can choose to hire a company who will do this for you, in exchange of a percentage of your compensation. You can also use this free tool that sends you a template letter.
I would include or add the following if you’re writing the letter to your airline by yourself:
- The law you’re referring to: “Under Section 7 of Regulation (EC) No. 261/1004 of the European Parliament and the Council of 11 February 2004, I have the right as an air passenger to compensation of … euros.”
- Include one of the breakthrough rulings that confirm the law above, as listed on this website. For my situation, I will mention the Walletin-Hermann ruling where the Court ruled that technical issues can’t fall under the ‘extraordinary circumstances’ category.
- Your passenger information: your flight information, reservation number, a copy of your boarding passes, tickets and receipts.
- Your personal information: name, address, email, phone number and the bank information they need to transfer the compensation.
- The situation that caused the delay and the reason given by the airline. (“no reason given” should also be stated if that’s the case)
- Letting them know you will not be satisfied with them merely saying it was an extraordinary circumstances, and you want an explanation of what was done to avoid this delay. It also helps to mention that this compensation will protect your customer relation with the airline.
Flight in the US