Home > Travel > Knowing Your Flyer Rights: European Regulation 261/2004 on an Award Ticket

Knowing Your Flyer Rights: European Regulation 261/2004 on an Award Ticket

Delays and cancellations can really throw a wrench into travel plans. Often times, passengers are at the mercy of airlines to help with rebookings and alternative plans. There are plenty of regulations that provide guidelines on what should be expected from air carriers. There is one rule I want to point out, and it deals with traveling on a carrier based in the European Union, or when traveling on a flight departing the European Union.

In April, my folks flew from India to Los Angeles on Lufthansa and United in coach. This was an award ticket and one of the flights was United 927 from Frankfurt to San Francisco, continuing to Los Angeles on a different aircraft. During their flight from India to Frankfurt, I received an email stating that their Frankfurt-SF flight was delayed. Shortly before they arrived, I received another email stating that United 927 was cancelled.

By the time I could get in touch with United, my parents had landed in Frankfurt and learned of the situation a few hours before their connecting flight. I searched ExpertFlyer for possible reroutings, but since my parents were low on the priority list (non-status at the time, traveling on a coach award ticket), the best option they had involved staying overnight in Frankfurt and flying to L.A. via Newark the next day. All in all, they would reach L.A. about 18 hours late and miss a full workday.

One of the first things to do was to check the wording of EU 261/2004, and see if my parents’ situation applied. While this pdf has the full laws, the Wikipedia page does a great job summarizing it:

The regulation applies to any passenger:

  • departing from an airport located in the territory of a Member State to which the Treaty applies;

The protection accorded to passengers departing from OR to an airport located in a Member State should be extended to those leaving an airport located in a third country for one situated in a Member State, when a Community carrier operates the flight and where a community carrier is defined as any carrier licensed to operate within that community.

  • departing from an EU member state, or
  • travelling to an EU member state on an airline based in an EU member state

if that person has:

  • a confirmed reservation on the flight, and
  • arrived in time for check-in as indicated on the ticket or communication from the airline, or, if no time is so indicated, no less than 45 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time of the flight


  • have been transferred from the flight for which he/she held a reservation to some other flight


  • the passenger is traveling on a free or discounted ticket not available to the general public, other than a ticket obtained from a frequent flyer programme.

The bolded parts are how my parents qualified for this rule  – they were departing a flight from a city within the European Union (Frankfurt), even though they were flying United, a company based in the United States. It’s important to note that had this been a cancellation going from San Francisco to Frankfurt, it would not have applied since it wasn’t departing from a European Union city. However, if one were flying San Francisco to Frankfurt on Lufthansa, which is an airline based in Germany, a member state of the European Union, then it would apply, since the flight is on a member country’s airline bound for the European Union. Confused yet? :p

Anyway. They also had a confirmed reservation. They had been checked in for the United flight in India at the Lufthansa check-in desk, and had arrived in Frankfurt 4 hours before their connecting flight to India. Lastly, while they were on a “free ticket,” it was an award ticket obtained via a frequent flyer program (my guess is that this clause is meant to exclude those traveling on buddy passes or non-revenue passengers).

So yes, they qualified. EU 261/2004 has different rules regarding delays, cancellations, and denied boarding. For cancellations, the rules say:

If a flight is cancelled, passengers are automatically entitled to their choice of

(a.) re-routing to the same destination at the earliest opportunity (under comparable conditions)

(b.) later rerouting, at the passenger’s convenience, to the same destination under comparable conditions (subject to seat availability)

(c.) a refund of the ticket as well as a return flight to the point of first departure, when relevant. Any ticket refund is the price paid for the flight(s) not used, plus the cost of flights already flown in cases where the cancellation has made those flights of no purpose.

Where applicable, passengers are also entitled to refreshments, communication and accommodation as described below. Where re-routing is to another airport serving the same destination, the airline must pay for onward transport to the original airport or to a close-by destination agreed with the passenger. These choices, and the entitlement to refreshments, etc., apply to all cancellations, regardless of whether the circumstances are extraordinary or not.

To me, clause (a.) likely applies to most passengers, who would like to get where they are going as soon as possible. Clauses (b.) and (c.) are likely for those doing quick turn-arounds and would be making trips in vain if they were to take a later flight.

As for cancellations, there are other rules that are on the airlines’ side if they provide enough notice.

The airline is also required to pay cash compensation as described below, unless one of the following conditions applies:

  • the airline notifies the passengers at least two weeks prior to departure
  • the airline notifies the passengers between one and two weeks prior to departure, and re-routes passengers so that they can:
    • depart no more than two hours earlier than scheduled, and
    • arrive no more than four hours later than scheduled
  • the airline notifies the passengers less than one week prior to departure, and re-routes passengers so that they can:
    • depart no more than one hour earlier than scheduled, and
    • arrive no more than two hours later than scheduled
  • the cancellation was caused by extraordinary circumstances that could not have been avoided by any reasonable measure.

I bolded that last clause since “Acts of God” are not grounds for compensation. If another volcano erupts over Iceland, that’s an “extraordinary circumstance that could not have been avoided by reasonable measure.”

However, in my parents situation, they were notified just a few hours beforehand. This had all the signs of a mechanical failure and inability for United to provide an aircraft able to fly from Frankfurt to San Francisco, and did not seem to be caused by a force majeure.

The most immediate thing that the airlines must provide are refreshments and accommodation. If a passenger qualifies under these rules, they must have the rules explained to them and be offered:

  • Meals and refreshments in proportion to the waiting time
  • Two telephone calls, fax or telex messages, or emails
  • Hotel accommodation and transport between the airport and the hotel, if a stay of one or more nights, or a stay additional to that intended by the passenger becomes necessary

Whoever staffs for United at FRA knew these rules, as my parents were provided a hotel for their overnight stay as well as taxi vouchers to the hotel and food vouchers to use at FRA airport and in the city. Good on United for following the rules here.

However, the cash compensation was what I was most interested in. The rules for compensation are divided into 3 types of flights: short-haul (< 1500 km), medium-haul (> 1500 km and within EU, or >1500km but <3500km), and long-haul (not within EU and > 3500km). If a flight is cancelled or a passenger denied boarding, they must be compensated either €250 for short-haul, €400 for medium-haul, or €600 for long-haul. If the new flight provided arrives at the destination within 2 hours for short-haul, 3 hours for medium-haul, or 4 hours for long-haul, then that compensation is halved.

A week after the flight, I sent an email to United. A few weeks later, I had a response offering 30,000 miles or a $1000 voucher for each passenger. While I’d rather have 600€ (>$700) instead of 30,000 miles, the $1000 vouchers piqued my interest. I asked for the terms & conditions of the voucher; one clause basically said these could be applied to one ticket each. Since my family rarely buys tickets >$700, and if so, rarely on United, these seemed like a bad value. So I said “no” to the funny money and pushed for cash compensation under EU 261/2004.

A few days after that e-mail, I got a letter from United in the mail that included claims forms to fill out and send to an office in the U.K. That has since been mailed to an office (which is somewhere near London-Gatwick, according to Google Maps). The checks (cheques?) should be coming any day soon. Now we just have to wait for the Euro to strengthen, since I’m guessing that’s the currency on the checks …

That’s my experience with United. It took some pushing to get them to acknowledge it, but we fought the good fight. There are several websites that help with these cases, but from a brief survey, it seems that they take a big chunk of the compensation for themselves, sometimes as much as 200€. That might be worth it to some people, but since this claim had multiple passengers, I thought doing the work myself was worth the 400€.

For one thing, British Airways allows flyers to file claims online rather easily. Since British Airways is based in the UK, almost every flight it operates falls under these guidelines; the two major exceptions I can think of are the Sydney-Singapore and the ComAir flights based out of South Africa.

I think this regulation is a great one to be familiar with if your travels include the European continent, especially if you are traveling on a carrier that’s not based in the EU and may not have to deal with these regulations for the majority of flights.

Categories: Travel Tags: , ,
  1. arcticbull
    August 7, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    Thanks this was a very helpful rundown. I like the redesign too, by the way 🙂

    Not exactly related, but I flew with my family a few years back from MUC-WAW on LH, and the 4 of us were VDB’d. The compensation offer was 250EUR each in cash (in retrospect we probably could have pushed for more :D) which they provided immediately. They sent us to a back office where a lady pulled out a bin of euros, and counted it out on the spot. $1600USD (at the time) for a 2 hour delay was quite welcome!

    • Amol
      August 8, 2012 at 2:05 am

      Not a bad haul! I had the same thing happen to me with Air France a while back, though it was only 100€ ($150) for an hour or so delay. Still not bad … I actually hope for VDBs for the majority of my trips :p

  2. December 5, 2012 at 5:22 am

    If you want to know if you are entitled to a compensation, just fill in your flight number and the date of your flight on http://www.flight-delayed.co.uk They can tell you immediately how much you can claim.

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