New European rules mean you can claim as much as £500 if your flight is delayed or cancelled. But you may face a fight to get the money you are entitled to.
Depressing news pictures from Gatwick over the festive period were just the latest reminder that flight delays are a fact of life.
On Christmas Eve, flooding in West Sussex led to the shutdown of the airport’s North Terminal.
As a result, delays and cancellations affected hundreds of flights on one of the busiest days of the year.
Gatwick’s owners now say they will give £100 in high-street vouchers to anyone whose flight was cancelled.
But travellers are unlikely to be able to make claims from their airlines because the problems were caused by extreme weather conditions.
New EU rules came into effect in 2012 guaranteeing air passengers minimum levels of compensation for delayed and cancelled flights.
But there are a number of circumstances under which airlines can legitimately turn down claims – and the Christmas flooding at Gatwick appears to be one of them.
Your rights and when they apply
Since October 2012, passengers have been entitled to compensation if their flight was either cancelled or delayed for more than three hours.
This right applies to all flights in the previous six years, provided the carrier was based in the EU, or the flight took off and landed within the EU.
The airline must also provide customers with food and hotel accommodation if necessary.
Compensation levels are set according to the flight’s distance: for those up to 1,500km, the rate is €250 (about £215).
If the trip is between 1,500km and 3,500km, the award is €400 (£345).
For longer flights, a delay of between three and four hours entitles passengers to €300 (£260) compensation, while €600 (£520) can be claimed for longer delays.
Crucially, to receive compensation the delay or cancellation must be the airline’s fault, and not the result of "extraordinary circumstances".
This essentially means issues beyond the company’s control.
This could be something like an act of terrorism, political unrest or, as in the Gatwick case, extreme weather.
You are likely to be able to claim if the delay is down to staff shortages or overbooking.
But there are some grey areas and airlines are currently engaged in a number of legal battles with consumer groups and their lawyers over when passengers should and should not be able to claim.
One ongoing case involves a group who were due to fly from Gatwick to Florida with Virgin Atlantic in October 2012.
Their flight was delayed for more than 26 hours after Virgin found a failure in an engine’s fire detector.
‘Left in the dark’
Passengers claim they were left in the dark with regard to when the flight would eventually leave, and were not offered food until the following morning.
Virgin, however, says it complied with its obligations to provide accommodation, meals and refreshments.
A Virgin spokeswoman says that the fault was the result of extraordinary circumstances which “could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken”.
As such, the passengers are not eligible for EU delay compensation, she says.
But solicitors Bott & Co, which is representing the passengers, is challenging this view and believes the problem could easily have been prevented by the airline.
Sam Borrett, spokesman for Bott & Co, says that air passengers in general are frequently getting a raw deal when problems occur.
"When there are delays or cancellations, passengers are often not given information, are left waiting, and don’t know what is happening," Borrett says.
"Even when the delays aren’t their fault, the airlines aren’t fulfilling their obligations when it comes to care and assistance."
Help with your claim
Bott & Co’s website has a compensation claim calculator: all passengers need to do is put in the date and number of any flight they have been delayed on in the previous six years and they can check whether they are entitled to redress.
The firm also has a free template letter which consumers can use to make their claim.
Borrett adds: "If they then struggle to get compensation from their airline, they can come to us and we can help."
Mhairi Edwards, head of travel at Confused.com, says: "It's also worth familiarising yourself with what your travel insurance will cover you for and what is the responsibility of the airlines.
"Some travel policies won't cover you for delays and those that do will generally only apply for delays over 12 hours.
"Before this point, you'll need to look to the airline for compensation."
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