If you’re flying on a European airline, 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 offered by U.S. airlines.
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 need to study EC 261 carefully before invoking it. 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 to only 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 a cancellation. That last one probably hurt the airlines the most. They wanted to keep their passengers’ money.
If you’re traveling to Europe in the near future, the EU commission notice is a must-read document. It outlines exactly how the EU expects airlines to interpret its consumer regulations during, and presumably after, the pandemic. We’ll update this section if and when there’s a new ruling.
What this means for U.S. passengers: Americans whose flights on European carriers were canceled during the pandemic are are still in a bind. Many EU carriers are either slow to issue refunds or are only offering credit. What’s more, the U.S. Department of Transportation seems largely 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.
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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?
This regulation provides for assistance and monetary compensation to airline passengers in situations of overbooking, cancellation or delay of a flight. The type of assistance and amount of monetary 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 U.S. to Europe. Does EC 261 apply?
In the case of 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 U.S. to Africa with a connection in Europe. Does EC 261 apply?
It depends on the carrier. For example, EC 261 would apply to a flight from Chicago to Johannesburg, South Africa, on Lufthansa, with a connection in Frankfurt. It applies to the Chicago-Frankfurt leg because it terminates in the EU and is operated by an EU carrier, and it applies to the Frankfurt-Johannesburg leg because it originates in the EU. If those same flights were operated by United Airlines, only the Frankfurt-Johannesburg leg would be covered under EC 261.
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 a EU country 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.)
What about flights to and from Britain?
Despite Brexit, Britain remains part of the European regulatory framework. EC 261 will continue to apply.
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 regulation “should rest with the operating air carrier who performs or intends to perform a flight, whether with owned aircraft, under 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 actually 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, 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, flight operated by Lufthansa: EC 261 applies because the flight is operated by an EU carrier
However, all of the examples I cite above are subject to caveats. First, the regulation does not specifically address code-share situations, and second, a code-sharing flight often presents the airlines involved with an opportunity to engage in circular finger-pointing, leaving the traveler stuck in the middle.
My U.S. domestic flight was delayed, and I missed my connection to Europe. 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 U.S. 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 set forth 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 length of the flight. (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, by bank order, or by 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 in the event of denied boarding, delay or cancellation. In cases where such an event actually 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 of the companies that offer assistance in filing EC 261 claims are AirHelp and EUClaim. AirHelp sells an annual membership that is advertised to carry benefits in securing compensation for flight delays, cancellations and overbookings that occur within a specific geographical area. It also advertises assistance specifically related 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 any third-party sites that offer assistance with these or other similar types of 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 by nature 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!