Compensation for flight delays and overbookings

If you are an air traveler, any flight that you take can be delayed for any number of reasons, for example due to weather or mechanical problems. In most cases, the delay does not cause any hardship. However, there are times when the delays can lead to missed connections, unexpected overnight stays in the airport, or other significant inconveniences.

Airlines that fly in the US are not legally obligated to provide any compensation for a delayed passenger. They are however, required to compensate passengers who have a reservation but are denied boarding, also known as getting bumped from the flight.

This is in contrast to airlines that fly in the European Union, which are required to compensate passengers who are bumped, as well as passengers who experience many types of delays and flight cancellations. No matter where you fly, you should make the effort to become familiar both with what an airline is required by law to provide in the way of compensation, your airline's policies on compensating passengers,and how you may be able to negotiate for additional compensation.

Delays and cancellations for domestic US flights
For domestic US Flights, there are no US federal regulations that require any compensation for a delayed or cancelled flight. However, keep in mind that each airline may have a policy for compensating passengers whose flights are delayed or cancelled, and those policies may include free or reduced price meals, hotel rooms, or phone calls.

The airline may also arrange an alternate flight on another aircraft on either the same airline or with a different airline. These policies are either included with the paperwork associated with your ticket, or are available from an airline representative. Before you travel, you may want to review the airline's policies to see what compensation may be offered in the event of a delay or a cancellation.

Watch the 14 February 2014 interview on changes in the US airline industry that may increase the likelihood of delays or cancellations due to bad weather .

Delays involving unaccompanied minors
If there is an unaccompanied minor traveling, you should absolutely check with the airline before the trip. As is the case with all delays and cancellations involving domestic US flights, there are no US federal requirements for any special services or compensation for unaccompanied minors on a delayed or cancelled flight. At the very least, you should have an alternative plan in place to deal with the possibility of the child being delayed overnight or arriving at the destination airport well after the expected time.
Airline rules for unaccompanied minors

Delays and cancellations for non-US domestic flights
Rules for compensation for delayed and cancelled flights will depend on the rules of that country and the rules of the airline. As is the case with domestic flights in the US, if you are traveling on a domestic flight in another country, you should review the policies or regulations of that airline to see what compensation you can expect in the event of a delay or a cancellation.

Delays and cancellations for European Union related flights
Unlike the US, the European Union (EU) does provide for compensation for flight delays and cancellations. In most, but not all, cases involving a delay or cancellation of a flight, a passenger is entitled to compensation under European Parliament Regulation (EC) 261/2004 for delayed and cancelled flights. There are three levels of compensation:

  • in the event of long delays (two hours or more, depending on the distance of the flight), passengers must in every case be offered free meals and refreshments plus two free telephone calls, telex or fax messages, or emails;
  • if the time of departure is deferred until the next day, passengers must also be offered hotel accommodation and transport between the airport and the place of accommodation;
  • when the delay is five hours or longer, passengers may opt for reimbursement of the full cost of the ticket together with, when relevant, a return flight to the first point of departure.

This regulation applies to all airline flights departing from an EU airport or to any airline licensed in the EU if that flight is departing from an airport outside the EU to a destination at an airport in an EU member state. The regulation also applies if the carrier is from Iceland, Norway or Switzerland and the flight is destined to an EU country.

Delays and cancellations for other international flights
While the EU has some regulations that specifically deal with EU related international flights, there are no requirements to compensate passengers on most other international flights that are delayed or cancelled.

The most relevant international treaty is the 1999 Montreal Convention, an international agreement signed by the US and many other countries. There is no specific language in this agreement that obligates the airline to compensate passengers in the event of a flight delay or flight cancellation. As would be the case with domestic US flights, review your airline's policies to see what compensation, if any, that the airline may provide.

Overbooking and involuntary bumping on US airlines
US airlines are allowed to overbook flights to allow for "no-show" passengers. However, if passengers are involuntarily bumped, airlines are required to do ask for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for compensation. Most involuntarily bumped passengers are subject to the following minimum compensation schedule:

  • There is no compensation if alternative transportation gets the passenger to the destination within one hour of the original scheduled arrival.
  • The equivalent of the passenger's one way fare up to a maximum of $400 for substitute domestic flights that arrive between one and two hours after the original scheduled arrival time or for substitute international flights that arrive between one and four hours after the original scheduled arrival time.
  • If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles to a maximum of $800. While this level of compensation is double the compensation that was available from 1978 to 2008, this doubling of passenger compensation did not even keep up with cost of living increases since 1978.

There are exceptions to these rules. This minimum compensation schedule does not apply to charter flights, to scheduled flights operated with planes that hold 30 or fewer passengers, or to international flights inbound to the United States, for example a flight from Mexico to California. If a passenger can't be accommodated to their satisfaction, they may be eligible to request a refund for the remaining part of the trip, even if the trip were on an otherwise nonrefundable ticket.

Denied boarding compensation
in the European Community

If you are bumped from a flight and your flight was either departing from an EU country, or if you were on an airline registered in the EU and your flight departed outside the EU for a destination within the EU, you would have the following rights:

  • Reimbursement of the cost of the ticket within seven days or a return flight to the first point of departure or re-routing to the final destination;.
  • Refreshments, meals, hotel accommodation, transport between the airport and place of accommodation, two free telephone calls, telex or fax messages, or emails;
  • Compensation totaling:

    - 250 EUR for all flights of 1,500 kilometers or less;

    - 400 EUR for all flights within the European Community of more than 1,500 kilometers, and for all other flights between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometers;

    - 600 EUR for all other flights.

Compensation for downgrading in service
in the European Community

If an air carrier places a passenger in a class lower than that for which the ticket was purchased, the passenger must be reimbursed within seven days, as follows:

  • 30% of the price of the ticket for all flights of 1500 kilometers or less.
  • 50% of the price of the ticket for all intra-Community flights of more than 1500 kilometers, except flights between the European Community member states and the French overseas departments, and for all other flights between 1500 and 3500 kilometers.
  • 75% of the price of the ticket for all other flights, including flights between the European Community member states and the French overseas departments.

Overbooking and voluntary bumping
Before an airline involuntarily bumps passengers on an overbooked flight, they will first ask for passengers who are willing to voluntarily give up their seat. Passengers considering volunteering to give up their seat should be aware of two important considerations. First, they will no longer be compensated under the denied boarding or involuntary bumping rules that are in effect for that flight. Second, a passenger who voluntarily gives up their seat is in a position to negotiate with the airline for other compensation that could be more valuable to the passenger. However, a passenger would be wise to volunteer only after the following six steps:

  1. Determine whether the later flight has a confirmed reservation and whether the scheduled arrival time is acceptable.
  2. Determine what will happen if the airline is unable to find a seat on the next flight or if that flight is delayed or cancelled.
  3. Determine whether the airline will pay for food, lodging, or other extra costs you may incur due to taking a later flight.
  4. Determine whether the compensation being offered for giving up your seat is worthwhile (hint: ask for more than what an involuntarily bumped person would get).
  5. Determine what kinds of restrictions or limitations are on the travel vouchers or other compensations that are being offered.
  6. Insist that any compensation be provided immediately and with any documentation needed to claim the compensation.

Complaining about your service
If for some reason you believe that the airline's response to your flight's delay or cancellation, or overbooking was not satisfactory, you may want to complain to the airline or to the authorities. If your flight was on a US airline or on a flight to or from the US, you can also use the Online Complaint Form for guidance on what information should go into your complaint.

If your flight was subject to EU regulations when it comes to delayed and cancelled flights, you can file a complaint following the guidance in this example EU complaint form.

Related resources

  • How to complain about your airline service
  • Top 10 Safety tips for children traveling alone
  • DOT "Fly Rights" consumer handbook
  • Montreal Convention of 1999
  • Top 10 baggage tips
  • Things you should not bring on board
  • Cabin safety tips

    Compensation for flight delays and overbookings -- Revised: 29 June 2015