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Flight Delays- What should passengers expect when they fly?

October 30, 2013 Headline News, Travel Law No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59A guide to air travel rights in Europe, USA, Canada and Australia

Airlines do not guarantee flights will depart according to schedule.

Flights delays occur because of bad weather, air traffic control flight clearances, mechanical issues and operational reasons (offloading disruptive passengers, unaccompanied baggage, etc).

For passengers, time passes slowly waiting for the boarding call at the boarding gate. Sitting in an aircraft on the tarmac, with no air-conditioning, waiting time can feel like an eternity.

The treatment should passengers expect when flight delays occur is more or less the same in Europe, USA, Canada and Australia.Cordato

Whether by law or airline conditions of carriage, passengers have the right to be looked after while they wait with refreshments, and if the delay is overnight, with accommodation, meals and telephone calls.

If waiting might mean a missed flight connection, a missed business appointment, or missing an event such as a family function or sports fixture which cannot be postponed, then the passenger should explore re-routing, even though they may pay the cost from their own pocket. This is because no compensation for inconvenience, distress or financial loss is available to passengers who suffer flight delays.

What are the rules airlines must follow for delayed flights in Europe, USA, Canada and Australia?

Preconditions for air passenger rights for flight delays

These are the preconditions:

1)     The passenger has a confirmed reservation.

2)     The passenger has presented themselves for check-in on time with valid travel documentation.

3)     The passenger is not denied boarding or offloaded.

4)     The flight is not cancelled.

5)     The flight is a scheduled flight.

Passenger rights for flight delays in Europe

European Law – Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 gives passengers rights where –

  • The flight is to depart from an EU Member State (applies to all airlines); or
  • The flight is to arrive in an EU Member State (applies to airlines based in an EU Member State). 

The procedure is –

  • Airlines are to inform passengers of their rights by displaying a notice at their check-in counters stating:

If you are denied boarding or if your flight is cancelled or delayed for at least two hours, ask at the check-in counter or boarding gate for the text stating your rights, particularly with regard to compensation and assistance. 

  • Passengers are to be provided with refreshments and communication if the delay is more than:
  • two hours, for all flights up to 1500 kms
  • three hours, for flights up to 1500 kms within the European Community
  • three hours, for flights more than 1500 kms and up to 3500 kms to or from destinations outside the European Community
  • four hours, for all flights more than 3500 kms 
  • Passengers are entitled to obtain a fare reimbursement if the delay is more than five hours – for all flights. 
  • If the flight delay is to continue until the next day, passengers are entitled to overnight accommodation and transfers, communication and refreshments.

There is no cash compensation payable for flight delays. There is also no re-routing available as a right, although airlines will usually assist in re-routing if the delay is a long delay.

If the flight number changes, then the flight is no longer delayed, it has been cancelled and cancellation rights apply, including cash compensation. For this reason, airlines prefer to delay flights for as long as they can, not cancel flights.

These are the services and assistance, which the airline must provide under Regulation (EC) No 261/2004:

1)     Fare Refund –The fare refund covers the cost of unused tickets. It also covers used tickets where the flight(s) taken no longer serve any purpose in relation to the passenger’s original travel plan, and where applicable, it covers a flight back to the original point of departure at the earliest opportunity. These services are at no additional cost to the passenger; and

2)     Refreshments, communication and accommodation – All of these must be offered free of charge: Meals and refreshments relative to the waiting time (as a rule of thumb, every 2 hours); Two telephone calls, fax or telex messages, or emails; and if it is not the passenger’s home port, hotel accommodation and transport between the airport and the hotel, if a stay of one or more nights, or if a stay additional to that intended by the passenger becomes necessary.

Passenger rights for flight delays in the USA

In the USA, the main concern is tarmac delay. A tarmac delay is where passengers are stranded in their aircraft on the tarmac, unable to take off or return to the departure gate.

In 2009 the U.S. Department of Transportation (known as the DOT) introduced a rule – Airlines operating domestic flights must allow passengers to deplane after a tarmac delay of 3 hours and for international flights, the airline must deplane passengers after 4 hours. The DOT imposes a fine of $27,500 per passenger for planes left on the tarmac for more than 4 hours without taking off.

This rule came about because of 11-hour tarmac delay on the John F. Kennedy International Airport New York on Valentine’s Day 2007. Passengers and crew were trapped on the tarmac in the aircraft on JetBlue Flight 751 with no heat, little or no food, and overflowing toilets waiting for a severe ice storm to abate.

The DOT rules are not infringed if the pilot or air traffic control determines that there is a safety or security reason why the aircraft cannot taxi to the gate and deplane its passengers.

The DOT rules require airlines to ensure that passengers who are stuck on the tarmac are provided with adequate food and water after 2 hours, as well as with working lavatories and necessary medical treatment. Airlines must report lengthy tarmac delays at U.S. airports to the DOT, including for international flights and charter flights.

For more advice, refer to DOT fact sheet: Fly Rights A Consumer Guide to Air Travel.

Each airline has its own policies about what it assistance they provide to delayed passengers waiting at the departure gate. There are no federal requirements, and contrary to popular belief, airlines are not required to compensate passengers waiting at the airport for their delayed flight.

Illustration (July 2013)

An Allegiant Airlines flight was delayed on the hot tarmac for 2 hours while maintenance issues were addressed at Phoenix Meza Gateway Airport, Arizona. During that delay, refreshments were provided. Passengers endured heat of 100 degrees inside the aircraft because the engines could not be turned on to provide full air-conditioning.

Passenger rights for flight delays in Canada

This advice given by the Canadian Transportation Agency in its Fly Smart web page applies not only in Canada, but elsewhere –

Times shown in timetables or elsewhere are approximate and are not guaranteed. Schedules are subject to change without notice and air carriers assume no responsibility for ensuring that their passengers make their connections to other flights. Flights can also be delayed or cancelled for various reasons.

While air carriers are not liable for costs incurred as a result of flight delays or cancellations which are beyond the carriers’ control, they often arrange alternate transportation to enable you to reach the next destination named on your ticket. If this is not possible, you may be entitled to a refund of the unused portion of your ticket. However, if you decide to make your own arrangements, the carrier will not be required to compensate you for any of your additional costs. Carriers are not responsible for damages such as stress, inconvenience, loss of income or loss of enjoyment as a result of a schedule irregularity.

In cases of long delays, some carriers will give vouchers for food and overnight accommodation upon request. Some major Canadian carriers have additional service commitments describing how they should treat passengers in the event that a flight is delayed overbooked or cancelled, as well as other related passenger rights incorporated as terms and conditions of carriage in their tariffs and which are enforceable by the Agency. This includes where a lengthy delay requires, an overnight stay or the flight is delayed on the tarmac.

Illustration (August 2013)

More than 250 Virgin Atlantic passengers were left stranded overnight in an airport in Canada following an emergency landing. The flight which was travelling from Heathrow to New York was forced to land in Canada after a “technical fault”. The passengers could not be accommodated overnight at a local hotel because all hotel rooms were fully booked.

Virgin Australia apologized for the inconvenience and offered all passengers a complimentary return flight with Virgin Atlantic for use at a later date.

Passenger rights for flight delays in Australia

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is the Australian authority which administers the Australian Consumer Law for airlines and air passengers.

The ACCC sets no guidelines for airlines to follow to set out passenger rights for delays, in contrast to its counterparts in Europe, the USA and Canada.

Therefore passenger rights for flight delays are found in the Conditions of Carriage, the Customer Charters (for domestic travel) and operational manuals of each airline.

This is a summary drawn from the airline Customer Charters lodged with the Airline Customer Advocate –

1) Advance warning – Jetstar will contact passengers by SMS or phone for confirmed delays of more than 45 minutes. Rex will text passengers for known delays of more than 60 minutes. Qantas will contact passengers, if they know at least 2 hours in advance of delays of more than 45 minutes for domestic flights and at least 4 hours in advance and delays of more than 60 minutes for international flights.

2) Re-booking the flight – Virgin Australia will re-book the flight on another of its services to the same destination at no additional cost. Jetstar will also re-book if the delay is outside of its control.

3) Refreshments, accommodation and communication – Rex will serve light refreshments where the delay is within their control and is more than 90 minutes where location permits. Qantas and Virgin Australia will provide hotel accommodation, transport to/from the hotel and meals (Virgin has a limit of $50 per room per night for meals) if the flight is delayed/disrupted until the next day and it is not the home port.

As you can see, the Customer Charters are far from comprehensive! The rest of their policies are found in airline operations manuals which are not available to the public.


(1)      As part of an industrial dispute in September 2011, Qantas staff walked of the job for 2 hours. As a result, Qantas was forced to cancel two flights as well as delay 39 other services.

Qantas contacted all affected customers and made other arrangements.

(2)      In January 2013, Jetstar passengers were stuck in Honolulu when the plane had pulled away from the gate but could not take-off due to a technical problem. Over 250 passengers were stranded on the tarmac for 2.5 hours in temperatures of about 40 degrees with only intermittent air conditioning. Jetstar provided a free hotel accommodation on Waikiki Beach for one night. The next day, the aircraft was able to fly to Melbourne.

Written by : Anthony J. Cordato & Henriette Dobler

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