EC 261 Regulation; Passenger Rights and Compensation

EC 261 Regulation EU Passenger Rights

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Since 2004, air travellers have various passenger rights under EU Regulation EC 261 in case of disruptions to their flight. In a 6 part series, I will cover the aspects of this regulation and also give tips on how to claim compensation from an airline.

EC 261 Regulation; Passenger Rights and Compensation (this article)

Rights in the event of cancellation (upcoming)

Passenger rights in the event of delay (upcoming)

Rights in the event of denied boarding or downgrade (upcoming)

Claiming compensation (upcoming)

EC 261 : Remarks (upcoming)

Purpose of EC 261/2004

EU Regulation 261 was introduced to offer travellers on commercial flights better protection and to secure consumer rights. The regulation covers passenger rights for assistance and compensation in the event of flight disruptions such as delay, cancellation, downgrade or denied boarding. The regulation has been in effect since February 17, 2006.


EC 261 applies to flights:

  • To or from an EU member state in case the flight is operated by an EU based carrier (eg. BA, Lufthansa etc)
  • From a member state in case the flight is operated by a non EU carrier (eg. American Airlines, Singapore Airlines etc).

A member state implies: a country which is a member of the European Union; Iceland, Norway or Switzerland. A community carrier is an airline which is based in a member state.

For instance, if you are travelling with British Airways from London to Dubai and back, you are covered by the regulation on both legs. If you were travelling on Emirates, you are only covered on the LHR-DXB flight.

It is applicable to passengers who:

  • Are in possession of a valid and confirmed reservation for a flight.
  • Have presented themselves on time at the airport (desk) for the flight.

‘On time’ is defined as the time which the airline or tour operator has stated. If no time is stated, it shall be at least 45 minutes before departure.

It is not applicable on (free or discounted) tickets that are not available to the public, like staff and industry tickets. The regulation is applicable on tickets booked with frequent flyer Miles or Points from a commercial (loyalty) program.

General remarks

EC 261 is also applicable on charter flights and flights which are part of a package tour, unless the package tour is cancelled for different reasons than the cancellation of the flight.

The regulation is applicable to the airline operating the flight, irrespective of whether you booked the flight through another airline or under a codeshare with different flight number. The operating carrier is also responsible for the handling and payment of possible compensation.

For instance, if you are flying with American Airlines from New York to London on a flight booked through British Airways and with a BA flight number, you are not covered under the regulation in case of disruption as American Airlines is the operating carrier.

The regulation does not apply to ‘5th freedom’ flights entirely outside member states.

For instance, if you are flying with KLM only from Singapore to Denpasar, you have no rights under this regulation.

EC 261 is also not applicable on flights from a transfer point outside of a member state to another non-member state.

For instance, you have a ticket for London-Doha-Bangkok with Qatar Airways. If you arrive on time in Doha but your onward flight to Bangkok is delayed, you are not covered. However if you miss a connecting flight due to a delay on a flight which originated in a member state, the regulation may apply.

Attribution of compensation under this regulation does not exempt airlines from civil claims. You may choose to go to court and sue for breach of contract (except if you have voluntarily taken a different flight). If compensation has already been rewarded, that amount may be deducted.

It is also worth pointing out that EC 261 applies just as much to low cost carriers like Ryanair and Easyjet as it does to traditional carriers like BA.

Obligation to inform passengers

Airlines are required to inform passengers about their passenger rights. If there is a cancellation, delay exceeding two hours or denied boarding, the airline must inform the passengers in writing about their rights on compensation and assistance, and where they may file a complaint if they wish to do so.

Assistance and care

In the case of a denied boarding, cancellation or a delay of

  • two hours or more for flights of 1500km or less
  • three hours or more on intra-EU routes of more than 1500km, or for any other routes between 1500km and 3500km;
  • 4 hours or more for any other eligible flights

passengers are entitled to  ‘assistance and care’. Article 9 stipulates what exactly is included:

1. Where reference is made to this Article, passengers shall be offered free of charge:

(a) meals and refreshments in a reasonable relation to the waiting time;

(b) hotel accommodation in cases

– where a stay of one or more nights becomes necessary, or

– where a stay additional to that intended by the passenger becomes necessary;

(c) transport between the airport and place of accommodation (hotel or other).

2. In addition, passengers shall be offered free of charge two telephone calls, telex or fax messages, or e-mails.

3. In applying this Article, the operating air carrier shall pay particular attention to the needs of persons with reduced mobility and any persons accompanying them, as well as to the needs of unaccompanied children.

Force majeure and technical defects

In events beyond the control of the airline, the carrier is not required to pay compensation. Force majeure includes, among other things: bad weather conditions, natural disasters (for instance a volcanic eruption), strike of air traffic control or airport personnel, sabotage, political instability or terror attacks.

Technical or mechanical defects explicitly do not constitute force majeure. The European Court of Justice has ruled that ‘defects or failures are inherent to the operation and activities of running an airline’ (even if these errors/defects are not caused by insufficient maintenance or discovered during regular inspections) and therefore do not preclude the carrier from paying compensation. Even a bird strike does not constitute force majeure.

Regardless of the reason for the delay, cancellation or denied boarding, the airline is always obliged to offer the assistance and care as described above. Force majeure only applies to the attribution of compensation.

In case of denied boarding, a refusal on the grounds of safety, security, health or lack of (sufficient) travel documents does not fall within the provisions of this regulation.


All articles of this regulation can be consulted on the website of the European Union.

Coming articles

In the rest of this series, I will explain in more depth the rights in the specific situations covered under this regulation.

Disclaimer: I am not a law practitioner. The above text is informative only and does not provide legal advice. The completeness or accuracy cannot be guaranteed.


  1. Shelly says

    I’ve been denied compensation on the basis that an earlier flight (2 ahead of mine on a different route) was delayed due to bad weather and this had a knock on effect. I thought it had to be bad weather at the actual departure point, arrival point or the route you are flying. Is this correct and should I challenge thomson on this.

    • The Flying Dutchboy says

      Weather is always a tricky case. It indeed depends significantly if your flight was directly affected by bad weather and if indeed it would constitute exceptional. If the weather at your departure airport was fine, but you experienced a delay because the aircraft suffered hold ups 1 or 2 flights earlier that day, you definitely have a case. I’d would challenge the airline, stating that exemption of compensation is only granted in case of extraordinary circumstances directly relating to your flight/route, which is this case seems not to be the case. If they don’t give in, you can always try one of the claim agencies, although they will take a chunk of the amount paid.

    • Dooky says

      There was a case that ruled that the weather delay of a previous flight is not an acceptable excuse, airline was BA

  2. Drav says

    Thanks for this, always good to read more about ec261.
    I know this is a 6 part series but i remember not too long ago you were doing a several part series challenging simon calder about how easy it is to use miles and points or something along those lines…. when will that continue? Or has it been quietly dumped

    • Joe Deeney says

      Hi Drav,

      I’m pleased to report that the Beginner’s Guide series is still very much an ongoing project – apologies for the delay! I hope to have it finished and up on the website in a couple of weeks.

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