If you’re flying on a European airline in 2023, you have more rights than you may think.
The reason? EC 261 (also referred to as the EU 261), the European consumer regulation, gives broad protection for passengers — far broader than anything US airlines offer.
But it’s not a perfect regulation and it doesn’t apply to every flight. What’s more, the rule has been strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effects on EC 261 could last a generation. Bottom line: You must study EC 261 carefully before invoking it this year. But it’s worth knowing.
What happened to EC 261 during the COVID-19 pandemic?
After the outbreak, European airlines asked the EU to waive certain provisions of EC 261, citing the “extraordinary” circumstances of the pandemic. In particular, EU carriers didn’t want to compensate passengers for delays, cover their accommodations in the event of an overnight delay, or refund their tickets. Instead, they wanted only to offer expiring flight credits.
On May 18, 2020, the EU issued a ruling that answered the airline’s request — and for the most part, it was a “no.” It insisted that they offer lodging and full refunds for cancellation. That last one probably hurt the airlines the most. They wanted to keep their passengers’ money.
The EU commission notice is a must-read document if you’re traveling to Europe shortly. It outlines exactly how the EU expects airlines to interpret its consumer regulations during and after the pandemic.
What this means for US passengers: Americans whose flights on European carriers were canceled during the pandemic are still in a bind. Many EU carriers are either slow to issue refunds or only offer credit. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Transportation seems powerless to force a European airline to refund ticket money. Your best bet is to dispute your credit card charges.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s take a closer look at EC 261 and how it applies.
What is EC 261?
Formally known as Regulation (EC) No 261/2004, EC 261 is a regulation adopted by the European Parliament on Feb. 11, 2004. It establishes common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding or cancellation or long flight delays. The definition of “long delay” depends on the distance to be flown. Here’s my guide on denied boarding compensation.
For the full text of EC 261, see the European Parliament website
What are the main provisions of EC 261? Plus, we include the full text of the rule.
This regulation provides assistance and monetary compensation to airline passengers during overbooking, cancellation, or flight delay. The type of assistance and amount of financial compensation depend on the circumstances (e.g., cancellation or length of delay) and the distance between the flight’s origin and destination.
Remember, this is just a summary. See the full EC 261 text for all official definitions, provisions, and restrictions.
I’m flying from the US to Europe. Does EC 261 apply?
Regarding flights terminating in an EU country, the regulation applies only to flights operated by an EU carrier. Thus, if you’re flying from Chicago to Frankfurt, EC 261 applies only if you’re flying on Lufthansa (or another EU carrier). If you’re flying in the opposite direction, it applies even if you’re on United Airlines because the flight originated in an EU member country.
I’m flying from the US to Africa with a connection to Europe. Does EC 261 apply?
Probably not. An Austrian court ruled in 2022 that EC 261 does not apply to flights with a stopover in Europe. The court said a flight with one or more connections on the same reservation constitutes a whole for the right of passengers to compensation provided for in the regulations. As such, EC 261 is assessed the place of a flight’s initial departure and the location of its final destination. However, if you have a flight with two record locators, this ruling would not apply.
I’m flying from the United States nonstop to a non-EU country. Is EC 261 applicable to my trip?
No. The flight neither originates nor terminates in an EU member country.
I’m flying from an EU to a non-EU country on a European carrier. Is EC 261 applicable to my trip?
Yes. The flight originates in an EU member country. (Even if you were flying on a non-European carrier, it would still apply, because the flight originates in an EU member country.)
Will EC 261 apply after Brexit?
Despite Brexit, Britain remains part of the European regulatory framework. EC 261 will continue to apply. It was written into UK law in 2020 and remains in effect now.
My flight is a code-share. Does EC 261 apply?
The regulation does not explicitly address code shares. However, the preamble states that the obligations created by the rule “should rest with the operating air carrier who performs or intends to perform a flight, whether with owned aircraft, under the dry or wet lease or on any other basis.” (The regulation defines an “operating carrier” as “… an air carrier that performs or intends to perform a flight under a contract with a passenger or on behalf of another person, legal or natural, having a contract with that passenger.”)
In theory, this should mean that the regulation is applicable based on the carrier that operates the flight rather than the carrier that sold the ticket. For a hypothetical flight between the United States and Europe, applicability would depend on the operator of the flight and the direction of travel:
From Europe to the United States:
- Ticket sold by Lufthansa, flight operated by United Airlines: EC 261 applies because the flight originates in an EU country.
- Ticket sold by United Airlines, a flight operated by Lufthansa: EC 261 applies because the flight originates in an EU country and is operated by an EU carrier.
From the United States to Europe:
- Ticket sold by Lufthansa, flight operated by United Airlines: EC 261 does not apply because the flight originates outside the EU and is not operated by an EU carrier.
- Ticket sold by United Airlines, a flight operated by Lufthansa: EC 261 applies because an EU carrier operates the flight.
However, all of the examples I cite above are subject to caveats. First, the regulation does not explicitly address code-share situations. Second, a code-sharing flight often allows the airlines to engage in circular finger-pointing, leaving the traveler stuck in the middle.
My US domestic flight was delayed, and I missed my European connection. Am I covered?
EC 261 would not apply in this case for two reasons. First, the delayed flight was entirely within the U.S. Second, even though the connecting flight from the US to Europe might have been covered under EC 261, that flight was not delayed or canceled.
EC 261 contains an exclusion for “extraordinary circumstances.” What constitutes an extraordinary circumstance?
EC 261 states that airlines’ obligations to passengers, as outlined in the regulation, are limited or excluded in “extraordinary circumstances,” which are defined as follows in the preamble:
(14) As under the Montreal Convention, obligations on operating air carriers should be limited or excluded in cases where an event has been caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken. Such circumstances may, in particular, 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 an operating air carrier.
(15) Extraordinary circumstances should be deemed to exist where the impact of an air traffic management decision in relation to a particular aircraft on a particular day gives rise to a long delay, an overnight delay, or the cancellation of one or more flights by that aircraft, even though all reasonable measures had been taken by the air carrier concerned to avoid the delays or cancellations.
I was downgraded from Business to Economy on my flight. Am I entitled to compensation under EC 261?
If the flight otherwise meets the criteria for applicability, you may be eligible for a refund of 30 to 75 percent of your ticket cost, depending on the flight length. (See Article 10 of EC 261.)
My package tour was canceled because the hotel went out of business. Am I entitled to compensation under EC 261?
No. The regulation applies in the case of a package tour only if the tour is canceled because of a flight cancellation.
After a flight delay, overbooking, or cancellation, how long do I have to apply for compensation?
EC 261 is silent on deadlines for seeking reimbursement or compensation. However, it is always in the passenger’s interest to file a claim as soon as possible. It might be advisable to ask for monetary compensation on the spot. At a minimum, request the information described in Article 14.
How do I file a complaint under EC 261?
Most, if not all, EU airlines have information on EC 261 on their websites.
The EU maintains a list of national enforcement bodies; however, it is generally better to address complaints first to the airline that operated the flight or flights in question.
What form must compensation take?
Article 7 states that compensation must be paid in cash, by electronic bank transfer, bank order, or bank check. The airline can compensate passengers with “travel vouchers and/or other services,” but only with the passenger’s signed authorization.
How much time does the airline have to reimburse me?
Article 8 states that reimbursement must be made within seven days.
What are the airline’s obligations to make passengers aware of their rights?
Article 14 states that the airline must provide a “clearly legible” notice stating that passengers may be eligible for compensation if denied boarding, delay, or cancellation. In cases where such an event occurs, the airline must provide each affected passenger with a written description of their rights.
What do I need to know about services that offer EC 261 compensation? Do you recommend any?
Two companies that assist in filing EC 261 claims are AirHelp and EUClaim. AirHelp sells an annual membership advertised to carry benefits in securing compensation for flight delays, cancellations, and overbookings within a specific geographical area. It also announces assistance related explicitly to EC 261 claims; however, the link to the EU-related information on its website is broken.
EUClaim is a website based in the United Kingdom that offers similar services related to EC 261 claims, but apparently without an annual membership fee. The company does, however, take a commission from any compensation it may recover.
As a matter of policy, we do not endorse or recommend third-party sites that offer assistance with these or other similar claims.
In implementing EC 261, the EU afforded airline passengers a defined level of protection. But it isn’t always clear whether the regulation applies to a given flight. And, of course, airlines are naturally averse to paying compensation. So even with the protections of EC 261, you may encounter resistance when requesting that compensation. If that happens, remember that the team at Elliott Advocacy is here to help.
How to get about $600 in flight delay compensation with EU rules
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Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher’s articles here.