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Airport chaos – how you’re covered for delays, cancellations and other airport ups and downs

Asleep at the airportThe disastrous opening of Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 and the accompanying media blitz no doubt spread the holiday jitters amongst many of those about to jet off. “Will I ever get to my destination… and if I do, will my luggage?” were surely common fears amongst those stranded during T5’s initial two weeks of airport misery.

But at least those shots of angry travellers and wheelie-bag mountains highlighted the problem of lost luggage, flight cancellations and general holiday chaos – and in response, here’s some useful information on passenger rights and recourse when faced with airport chaos.

The Montreal Convention

This sets out an airline’s liability for passengers and their baggage for international travel (the same levels of liability also apply to domestic air travel, though this is covered by separate EU legislation).

Delayed baggage

Ask the airline for an immediate cash payment to cover essentials such as toiletries, underwear etc (though you’re unlikely to get anything if on the homeward leg of your journey). Some airlines will cough up immediately whereas others will reimburse you after seeing receipts (remember to agree an amount it’s ok to spend in advance).

Lost baggage

Lost baggage is only treated as such after it’s been missing over 21 days, after which you are entitled to compensation from the airline. You may be asked for a list of items and any receipts, and the more you can prove was in your luggage the more likely you are to receive the maximum – set at 1000 SDRs per passenger (Special Drawing Rates – worth £827 as of 22/04/08). This means that you may be better off claiming on your travel insurance so check your level of cover.

Note: You can only claim once for the same loss, i.e. you can’t claim from both the airline and the insurance provider for the same lost baggage, and you should approach the airline for compensation as your first port of call.

Items missing from baggage

Checked-in baggage is routinely opened as part of an airport’s screening process and sometimes items inside go missing. To help combat theft it’s becoming increasingly common for cards to be placed inside the bag informing the owner of the name of the officer who opened it for inspection.

As airlines won’t usually compensate for missing items unless they have proof that it was in the bag in the first place, it might be a good idea to have travel insurance for extra peace of mind.

Damaged bags

If your bag is damaged the airline will reimburse you, though you may receive less than the replacement amount due to depreciation – though many airlines simply avoid the fuss by offering a new replacement.


In general, if your flight is cancelled or you are denied boarding because the plane is full, you are entitled to a full refund, a seat on another flight or a return flight to your original departure point. The exception is if it’s not the airline’s fault due to “extraordinary circumstances” such as adverse weather, political instability, strikes, security issues etc.

If a cancelled flight delays your journey, you should receive assistance at the airport – including free meals and refreshments, and phone calls. If the earliest alternative flight isn’t until the next day, then you will be entitled to accommodation, plus travel from and back to the airport.

You may also be entitled to a payout. Follow this link to find out whether or not you might qualify for compensation.

Compensation for a cancelled flight varies depending on the length of your flight and how long your arrival at your destination is delayed as a result of you being rerouted.

The amount to which you are entitled is as follows*:

  • €125 (£99) on a journey of up to 1,500km delayed by up to two hours
  • €250 on a journey of up to 1,500km delayed for more than two hours
  • €200 on a journey of 1,500km-3,500km delayed by up to three hours
  • €400 on a journey of 1,500km-3,500km delayed by more than three hours
  • €300 on a journey of more than 3,500km delayed by up to four hours
  • €600 on a journey of more than 3,500km delayed by more than four hours

Again, follow the link above to double-check if these figures are still current.

The rules regarding claiming have been known to confuse people. To clarify matters, the Air Transport Users Council have an advice service for passengers, which they run from Mondays to Thursdays. Check their website for the current number.

*Correct at April 28th, 2008


You will not be compensated if your flight is delayed. However, depending on how long the delay lasts, you may well be entitled to food and refreshments, free phone calls, and paid overnight accommodation if the flight doesn’t leave until the next day. If a flight is delayed for over five hours, then you are entitled to a refund if you elect not to travel.

Airport security

For details of the current security requirements expected of passengers, visit the Department for Transport’s airport security page here.

Travel insurance

Although not mandatory, it is widely considered that travel insurance should not be viewed as a grudge purchase. The recent Terminal 5 debacle lends weight to this view. So although not a legal requirement, having an adequate level of travel insurance can certainly save a lot of heartache.

Not all policies cover baggage when in the care of the airline – so, if you’re concerned, be sure to check your travel insurance terms.

In many cases insurance companies refused to pay out on claims made by passengers for lost baggage or delayed flights. However, this applied in situations where the passengers had purchased single trip policies after Terminal 5 had opened. As such, they should have known of the associated problems due to their exposure in the media. Commenting on the situation, the Association of British Insurers observed that companies who refused to pay out had considered that embarking from the new British Airways terminal was an “avoidable risk”. This was so as most destinations in question could be reached from other Heathrow terminals.

Other travel tips

  • Important items such as medicines, your passport and visa documents, valuables, and anything that cannot be replaced should be taken on board in your hand luggage. If your bag exceeds the maximum amount allowed for hand luggage, then remove the aforementioned important items before it is checked into the hold.
  • The same applies to fragile items, as airlines often don’t accept liability for items damaged in the hold.
  • In a similar vein, if you aren’t travelling alone, it’s not a bad idea to pack a few items of clothes in one another’s luggage – just in case one item of baggage gets lost but not the other.
  • Locking bags isn’t a bad idea if you’re concerned about items being stolen from your luggage. Do bear in mind, however, that if you’re travelling to the USA, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recommend that baggage is left unlocked for the purpose of security checks.
  • If you have any large or unusually shaped items that you wish to take on board (a surfboard, for example), it may well be an idea to contact your airline in advance, and find out if it will require special handling.

But the best travel advice that can offer is…

Enjoy your trip!

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