Airline passengers are being left hundreds of pounds out of pocket after weeks of travel chaos. Some travellers whose flights were cancelled or diverted arranged their own alternative transport. Although airlines should step in to cover the costs, they are reportedly refusing to refund some of those who have had to make their own way home.
If a flight to or from a UK or EU airport is delayed, cancelled or diverted, you should make a claim for relevant expenses and, if applicable, compensation. The key piece of legislation is EU regulation 261, which, for now, continues to be valid in the UK after Brexit. Here’s how to go about it.
Know your rights
When a flight is cancelled, you have the right to be refunded or rerouted. The airline is required to get you to your destination as soon as possible, even if it involves you travelling with a different carrier. If the flight is cancelled within 14 days of the departure date, or if it is delayed by more than three hours, you are also entitled to a set amount of compensation starting at £220 a passenger, depending on how many days’ notice you were given and how far the destination. The exception is if the cancellation was down to an “extraordinary circumstance”. The definition of what is and isn’t extraordinary is vague, and airlines tend to use it as a catch-all to avoid payouts, but successive court rulings have shrunk the list to things such as abnormal weather conditions, manufacturing defects and industrial action by non-airline staff. Staff sickness or shortages don’t count. Once a delay exceeds two hours for short-haul flights or four for long-haul, the airline has to provide you with food and phone calls and, if you are delayed overnight, accommodation expenses. A potentially expensive grey area is if a delay gets you to your destination in the middle of the night when public transport has shut. Costs you incur to get yourself to where you should be count as “consequential loss” and airlines are not obliged to pay them.
View image in fullscreenIf your flight is cancelled you have the right to be refunded or rerouted. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/EPA
How to claim
You should go direct to the airline and ignore the ads for third-party claims firms that appear at the top of a Google search. These will take a large cut from any payout just for filling a form you can submit yourself. Most airlines provide an online claims form that will specify the required information. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) website offers guidance on what to include if you make a claim by post, and the consumer group Which? provides an online form that will generate a claims letter. However you claim, you will need to attach receipts and explanations for any expenditure.
What if my claim is rejected?
You can appeal to an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) scheme once you receive the rejection letter, or if eight weeks pass without a response. Different airlines are signed up to different schemes – the complaints page on the airline’s website should direct you to the correct one and the CAA publishes a list. Airline membership is voluntary and one of them, CEDR, which British Airways passengers have to use, charges a £25 fee if a claim is unsuccessful. ADRs have been criticised for being ineffectual. When an ADR scheme ordered Ryanair to pay £2.6m to passengers delayed by strikes in 2018, the airline revoked its membership to avoid stumping up. Ryanair passengers now have to take their complaint to the CAA.
What if an ADR rejects my claim?
The small claims track is the obvious option but you need to be very sure of your argument because you have to pay court fees of at least £100, which are only refunded if you win. If the flight was due to depart from or arrive in the UK, you would be taking your case to a county court in England, Wales or Northern Ireland or a sheriff court in Scotland, which has a different fee structure.
To avoid fees altogether, you could try making a claim via your credit card issuer
To avoid upfront fees you could engage a no-win, no-fee solicitor who specialises in aviation. The downside is, if the claim is successful they will deduct a probably substantial portion from the payout.
To avoid fees altogether, you could try making a claim via your credit card issuer under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act provided the sum involved is £100 or more. However, although the law holds credit card issuers jointly liable if a trader breaches a contract, it is not clear whether a flight cancellation is such a breach since airlines make allowances for disruption in their terms and conditions.
What about travel insurance?
Insurers tend to reject claims if the airline is shirking its legal responsibility. Some policies may offer compensation for very severe delays but it is usually a pittance.