Trading Standards Institute Advice

Problems with flights

In the guide

This guidance is for England, Scotland & Wales

Your flight may be delayed or cancelled for a number of reasons, which may include adverse weather conditions, strikes, political or civil unrest and other 'extraordinary circumstances'. You may be downgraded to a class lower than you booked or you may be 'denied boarding', commonly referred to as being 'bumped' from your flight. 

EU Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 establishing common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding and of cancellation or long delay of flights, set out the circumstances when you are entitled to a refund, compensation and assistance at the airport. These rights apply to passengers flying from an EU airport on any airline or arriving at an EU airport on an EU airline.

This guide explains what you are entitled to and how much compensation you can claim.

When a flight is cancelled

If your flight is cancelled, you are entitled to a refund on any unused part of your flight ticket. As an alternative, you can be 're-routed' on to a different flight as soon as possible or at a later date if that is more convenient to you (subject to seat availability). If you accept an alternative flight, you are also entitled to care and assistance, such as food, drink, access to communications and accommodation (where relevant).

If your flight is cancelled and the airline gives you between seven and fourteen days' notice, in addition to a refund or re-routing you may also be entitled to claim compensation at the following levels:

Length of journey Alternative flight arrangements Compensation
short haul (up to 1,500km) departs more than two hours before booked flight and arrives less than two hours after booked flight €125
short haul (up to 1,500km) departs more than two hours before booked flight and arrives more than two hours after booked flight €250
short haul (up to 1,500km) arrives more than four hours after booked flight €250
medium haul (1,500km to 3,500km) departs more than two hours before booked flight and arrives less than three hours after booked flight €200
medium haul (1,500km to 3,500km) departs more than two hours before booked flight and arrives three to four hours after booked flight €400

medium haul (1,500km to 3,500km)

arrives more than four hours after booked flight €400
long haul (more than 3,500km) departs more than two hours before booked flight and arrives less than four hours after booked flight €300
long haul (more than 3,500km) arrives more than four hours after booked flight €600

If your flight is cancelled and the airline gives you less than seven days' notice, in addition to a refund or re-routing you may also be entitled to claim compensation at the following levels:

Length of journey Alternative flight arrangements Compensation
short haul (up to 1,500km) departs more than one hour before booked flight and arrives less than two hours after booked flight €125
short haul (up to 1,500km) arrives more than two hours after your booked flight €250
medium haul (1,500km to 3,500km) departs more than one hour before booked flight and arrives less than three hours after booked flight €200

medium haul (1,500km to 3,500km)

arrives more than three hours after booked flight €400
long haul (more than 3,500km) departs more than one hour before booked flight and arrives less than four hours after booked flight €300
long haul (more than 3,500km) arrives more than four hours after booked flight €600

The airline is not obliged to compensate you if it can prove that the cancellation was caused by 'extraordinary circumstances', which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken. Such extraordinary circumstances might occur in cases of political instability, meteorological conditions incompatible with the operation of the flight concerned, security risks, unexpected flight safety shortcomings and strikes that affect the operation of the airline. Technical problems or the failure of a component are not necessarily considered extraordinary circumstances and you may still be entitled to claim compensation.

If you want  to claim compensation from an airline for a cancelled flight, you can use the template letter in the 'Writing an effective letter of complaint' guide.

When a flight is delayed

If there is a delay in getting you to your destination that is not due to an 'extraordinary circumstance' (see above), you may be able to claim compensation at the levels set out below. 

Length of journey Delay to destination Compensation
short haul (up to 1,500km) more than three hours €250
medium haul (1,500km to 3,500km) more than three hours €400
long haul (more than 3,500km) between three to four hours €300
long haul (more than 3,500km) more than four hours €600

If you want to claim compensation from an airline for a delayed flight, you can use the template letter in the 'Writing an effective letter of complaint' guide.

When your booking is downgraded

If you are upgraded to a higher class of flight, the airline cannot charge you any extra. If you are downgraded to a lower class, the airline must reimburse you on a percentage basis and within seven days.

Length of journey Reimbursement
short haul (up to 1,500km) 30% of the ticket price
medium haul (1,500-3,500km) 50% of the ticket price
long haul (more than 3,500km) 75% of the ticket price

If you want to claim reimbursement for a downgraded booking, you can use the template letter in the 'Writing an effective letter of complaint' guide.

Denied boarding

If a flight is overbooked by an airline, it may ask you if you want to volunteer to be 'bumped' - in other words give up your seat - or the airline may deny you a seat without your agreement.

If you volunteer to give up your seat, you can claim a refund or an alternative flight and you can negotiate compensation with the airline.

If the airline denies you a seat without your agreement, you are entitled to claim a refund or an alternative flight and you are also entitled to claim compensation at the levels below. 

Length of journey Delay to destination Compensation
short haul (up to 1,500km) up to two hours €125
short haul (up to 1,500km) more than two hours €250
medium haul (1,500km to 3,500km) up to three hours €200
medium haul (1,500km to 3,500km) more than three hours €400
long haul (more than 3,500km) up to four hours €300
long haul (more than 3,500km) more than four hours €600

If you are denied boarding and want to claim compensation, you can use the template letter in the 'Writing an effective letter of complaint' guide.

Assistance at the airport

If you are delayed by more than two hours, the airline is obliged to provide assistance. You are entitled to:

  • assistance with communication (possibly by refunding your call costs)
  • free meals and refreshments appropriate to the delay (this may be in the form of vouchers)
  • free accommodation and transport to and from the accommodation, if an overnight stay is required
  • transport home, if it is practical for you to return there

Airlines must give priority to persons with reduced mobility and to persons / service dogs who accompany them, and also to unaccompanied children.

The airlines must inform you of your right to compensation and assistance. A notice must be displayed at the check-in area and a written notice of your rights must be given to you in the event of a cancellation, delay or re-route. If you want to make a claim contact the airline; it will have a claims procedure that you can use. If your claim does not succeed you can complain to the Civil Aviation Authority (opens in a new window).

What if you are stranded & trying to get home?

Some passengers may wish to make alternative arrangements to get home instead of making arrangements with the airline they originally booked the flight with. In such circumstances airlines are not required to refund your additional expenditure. In exceptional circumstances some airlines may reimburse customers but will not pay if they consider the expenditure unreasonable. You should keep receipts for all expenditure to help you justify your claim.

What will your flight insurance cover?

At the time you book your flight, you may wish to take out a flight insurance policy. Check with insurance providers to see what type of cover suits your circumstances and what you can claim for. Make sure you know the difference between what you are legally entitled to claim from the airline and what you can claim for under the terms of the policy.

If you have a problem with a flight, check the terms of the policy again before you make any arrangements over and above what you may be able to claim from the airline so that you are satisfied you are covered by your insurance.

If you want to complain about flight insurance, contact the Financial Ombudsman Service (opens in a new window).

What if the airline rejects your claim?

If your flight departed from a UK airport, you can complain to the Civil Aviation Authority. Contact the Civil Aviation Authority for details of this free service (opens in a new window).

If you paid for the flight using your credit card and it cost more than £100 but less than £30,000, you have rights under the Consumer Credit Act 1974. Section 75 of the Act makes the card provider as responsible as the airline for a breach of contract or misrepresentation. This could include a cancelled flight. You are entitled to take action against the airline, the card provider or both. If you are unhappy with the card provider's response then you can complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service (opens in a new window).

If you use a debit card to buy the flight or if you use a credit card and the price of the item is less than £100 (your rights under the Consumer Credit Act 1974 would not apply) you may be able to take advantage of the chargeback scheme. Chargeback is the term used by card providers for reclaiming a card payment from the trader's bank. If you can provide evidence of a breach of contract, you can ask your card provider to attempt to recover the payment. Check with your card provider as to how the scheme rules apply to your card, whether internet transactions are covered and what the time limit is for making a claim.

The flights were part of a holiday package - what are your rights?

You have rights under the Package Travel, Package Holidays and Package Tours Regulations 1992.

A 'package' means a pre-arranged combination of at least two components of travel arrangements (transport, accommodation or some other tourist service) when sold at an inclusive price and when the service covers a period of more than 24 hours or includes overnight accommodation.

If a tour operator cancels your package holiday, you will have several options. You can choose one of the following:

  • accept an alternative holiday of a similar or better standard
  • accept an alternative holiday of a lower standard and claim back the difference in cost
  • cancel the holiday and get your money back

You may also be able to claim compensation if your holiday is cancelled - for example, to cover any financial loss you have suffered or disappointment and inconvenience.

However, you will not be entitled to make a claim for additional compensation if an insufficient number of people have booked on to the package holiday. The tour operator must warn you in writing when you book the holiday if a minimum number of people are needed for the holiday to take place. You must also be told about when you will be notified if this minimum number has not been met and the holiday has to be cancelled.

You cannot claim compensation if your package holiday has to be cancelled due to unusual and unforeseeable circumstances that were beyond the control of the tour operator and could not have been avoided.

See the 'Holidays' guide for more information.

Travel outside the EU with a non-EU airline - what can you claim?

You will have a contract with the airline for the provision of a flight so if the flight is cancelled, delayed or if you are denied boarding, you may be able to claim compensation. Check the airline's terms and conditions. If you are claiming out-of-pocket expenses, keep your receipts as evidence of your claim.

Excessive charges for paying by credit card - what are your rights?

Under the Consumer Rights (Payment Surcharges) Regulations 2012, traders are banned from charging excessive fees to consumers for using payment methods such as credit and debit cards. The fees charged must reflect the actual cost to the trader of using that particular payment process. The Regulations apply to most sales and service contracts. A contract term relating to the requirement to pay a fee is unenforceable against you to the extent of the excess charged. If you have paid an excessive fee, the excess must be repaid to you. If you believe a trader's fees are excessive report it to the Citizens Advice consumer service.

Do you have any other rights?

Most of the Consumer Protection (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 do not apply to flights. However, some elements do apply:

  • a trader must obtain your clear agreement to charge you for optional extras before you confirm the contract. They must not use pre-ticked boxes that you then have to un-tick to avoid paying for the additional service. You are entitled to be reimbursed if you make a payment that you did not agree to
  • a trader must not charge you more than the basic rate for calling their telephone helpline to discuss a contract you have with them. You may still see numbers beginning 09, 084, 0870, 0871, 0872, 0873 but the basic rate number should be equally or more prominently displayed

If you enter a contract because a trader misled you or because the trader used an aggressive commercial practice, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 give you the right to redress: the right to unwind the contract, the right to a discount and the right to damages. See the guide 'Misleading & aggressive practices: your right to redress' for more information.

Key legislation

Last reviewed / updated: November 2017

Please note

This information is intended for guidance; only the courts can give an authoritative interpretation of the law.

The guide's 'Key legislation' links may only show the original version of the legislation, although some amending legislation is linked to separately where it is directly related to the content of a guide. Information on amendments to UK legislation can be found on each link's 'More Resources' tab; amendments to EU legislation are usually incorporated into the text.

For further information please contact the Citizens Advice consumer service, which provides free, confidential and impartial advice on consumer issues. Visit the Citizens Advice website (opens in a new window) or call the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 03454 040506.

© 2017 itsa Ltd.