European Air Passenger Rights

In Europe: EC 261

What is EC 261?
EC 261/2004 is a regulation in EU law that favors the passenger. It holds airlines financially accountable when air travel takes an unexpected turn, so long as the disruption was not caused by circumstances outside of the airline’s control.

In comparison to other laws on passenger rights, EC 261 is one of the most comprehensive. This important piece of legislation plays a vital role in advocating for air travelers and passenger rights, and not only for European travelers. All passengers departing from a European airport are covered under EC 261. And in some circumstances, passengers flying into Europe from other worldwide destinations may be covered as well.

EC 261 Compensation for Disrupted Flights

Travelers often do not understand that in many instances, airlines are legally and financially responsible for flight issues, not the passenger.

Depending on your flight, flight scenario, and ultimate destination, understanding passenger rights and filing a claim can mean up to $700 per flight in reimbursements.

AirHelp can assist with our staff of legal experts to iron out the finer details and legal jargon.

Your rights under EC 261

EC 261 is an extensive bit of legislation which requires airlines to compensate passengers in the event of:

The amount of compensation passengers are entitled to depends on a lot of factors including the distance traveled and the amount of time you are delayed reaching your final destination.

In addition to monetary compensation, EC 261 includes other rights relating to your treatment. Here are some of the highlights:

Obligation to inform passengers of their rights

Your first basic right is to be informed about the content of EC 261. Every airline has to display information on passengers’ rights at their check-in counters in every airport where they operate. If our breakdown of the legalese is still not enough, you can read the actual text of EC 261, as well.

Right to reimbursement or re-routing

In addition to compensation for your loss of time, if your delay exceeds five hours, you are entitled to a full or partial refund of your original ticket and a return flight to your point of departure, if needed.

Right to care
When a flight disruption occurs and you’re stuck waiting for the airline to get you back on track toward your destination, you’re entitled to a number of essentials, depending on your flight details.

The carrier must provide you with:

  • Meals and refreshments during the delay
  • Access to communications, including two telephone calls, telex or fax messages, and emails
  • If overnight accommodations are necessary, they must provide you with a hotel room and transportation to and from the airport

The following chart explains when passengers become eligible for these rights:

Flight details Length of delay
All flights 1,500km or less 2 hours or more
Internal EU flights over 1,500 km 3 hours or more
Non-internal EU flights between 1,500 km and 3,500 km 3 hours or more
Non-internal EU flights over 3,500 km 4 hours or more

Upgrading and downgrading

If you are offered an alternative flight and placed in a higher class than the one you booked, the air carrier cannot charge you any additional payment. On the other hand, if the class of the alternative flight is lower, you can get a reimbursement between 30% and 75% of the price you originally paid.

Further compensation

Your right to compensation under EC 261 does not affect your right to request further compensation. This rule does not apply in cases where passengers have voluntarily surrendered their reservations. Of course, the amount you are entitled to under EC 261 may be deducted from whatever additional compensation you receive.

Which Flights are Covered by EC 261?

Most routes within Europe are covered. This includes not only EU airspace, but also Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and the so-called “outermost regions” (French Guiana and Martinique, Mayotte, Guadeloupe and La Réunion, Saint-Martin, Madeira and the Azores, and the Canary Islands).

Many international flights are covered, as well. If your flight departs from an airport in the EU, it’s covered. If your flight departs from elsewhere but your destination is in the EU, coverage depends on the airline ⎯ if it’s a European carrier, you’re covered.

If you’re confused, here’s a simple chart to help:

Itinerary EU air carrier Non-EU air carrier
From inside the EU to inside the EU check iconCovered check iconCovered
From inside the EU to outside the EU check iconCovered check iconCovered
From outside the EU to inside the EU check iconCovered close iconNot covered
From outside the EU to outside the EU close iconNot covered close iconNot covered

In some cases, disrupted flights outside the EU may be eligible under EC 261 if they connect to a covered flight that is with the same carrier and part of the same flight reservation (under one booking reference number). The easiest way to find out if you’re covered is to use the AirHelp eligibility check.

What’s Not Covered: Extraordinary Circumstances

EC 261 says that airlines do not have to pay compensation if the disruption was caused by ‘extraordinary circumstances’ which are events outside of their control. For example, you will not be eligible for compensation if your delay was a result of one of the following:

Extraordinary Circumstances
close iconStrikes initiated by airport employees or air traffic control
close iconPolitical unrest
close iconInclement weather
close iconSecurity risks

However, airlines must still show that they have taken reasonable measures to prevent the delay. For example, bad weather may be considered an extraordinary circumstance. However, if other airlines were prepared for it and prevented delays, whilst yours didn’t, you should still be entitled to compensation.

In the years since EC 261 was introduced numerous court cases have been contested over what counts as an ‘extraordinary circumstance’. Our legal experts keep up to date with these latest developments. We were particularly pleased with the 2018 ruling by the European Courts of Justice that airline staff strikes cannot be considered an extraordinary circumstanceThat means that thousands of passengers who have been affected by airline staff strike action will now be eligible for compensation.

Is there a time limit to file a claim?

Your right to compensation under EC 261 does eventually expire, but the time limit varies from one country to the next.

You should note that the country you claim in is not decided by your nationality, but is determined by where the headquarters of the airline is, or what court has jurisdiction in cases concerning the airline.

As always, we have a handy chart for you:

Austria 3 years
Belgium 1 year
Bulgaria 5 years
Croatia 3 years
Cyprus 6 years
Czech Republic 3 years
Denmark 3 years
Estonia 3 years
Finland 3 years
France 5 years
Germany* 3 years
Greece 5 years
Hungary 5 years
Iceland 2 years
Ireland 6 years
Italy 26 months
Latvia 10 years
Lithuania 10 years
Luxembourg 10 years
Malta No limit
Netherlands 2 years
Norway 3 years
Poland 1 year
Portugal 3 years
Romania 3 years
Slovakia 2 years
Slovenia 2 years
Spain 5 years
Sweden** 3 years
Switzerland 2 years
United Kingdom 6 years

* For Germany, the limitation period expires the last day of the third year (for example, the limitation period for a flight on 25/2/2016 expires on 31/12/2019).
** For Sweden, the limitation period is renewed any time a claim is made. So the limitation period for any subsequent claims would be three years from the time the last claim was filed.

This information was published by Air Help.

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