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.

Delays and cancellations for domestic US flights
Airlines that fly in the US are not legally obligated to provide any compensation for a delayed passenger on a domestic flight. In other words, 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 and hotel accommodations.

Delays and cancellations for European Union flights
In contrast to domestic US flights, airliners that fly within the European Union are required to compensate 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.

Airline policies for delayed and cancelled domestic US flights
On a domestic flight, each US 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 even arranging an alternate flight with 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. You may also find it within the airline's contract of carriage, which is the agreement airlines make with passengers. This document is typically found on the airline's web site. 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.

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. The amount of compensation will depend on the circumstances of the delay or cancellation, and the relevant regulations would apply 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 within an EU member state.

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.
  • There is additional compensation for delays lasting longer than one hour, with the amount of compensation depending on the kind of ticket the passenger purchased, and whether the airline arranged alternative transportation.

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.
For additional details, refer to the US Department of Transportation's Fly Rights page

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 rights beyond what is offered by US airlines for domestic overbookings. Compensation may include reimbursement of the cost of the ticket, meals, and hotel accommodation. The amount of compensation would be based in part on the length of the flight, and whether the airline offered alternative transportation.

Overbooking and voluntary bumping
In general, 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: 10 April 2017