In this guide, we will discuss the rules and laws of the European Union (EU) when it comes to your passenger rights when you are involuntarily denied boarding in case of an overbooked flight – and what kind of compensation you are entitled to in this situation.
An introduction to EU passenger rights
In the EU, passenger rights and compensation are outline in a regulation officially known as (EC) No 261/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council. We will abbreviate the regulation simply as EC/261 from here onward.
In the above link you can find the full text of the regulation, which is available in every single language of each EU member state.
The text can however be quite lawyerish to read and hard to understand for those uninitiated into airline specifics and law. We have therefore written a full guide explaining you all you need to know about your rights as an airline passenger.
We recommend you to first read our introduction into EU passenger rights and compensation before reading the specifics below what you should do when you are denied boarding.
What does it mean when you are denied boarding?
There are many cases when you could be denied boarding. Most often this involves an overbooked flight in which the airline has sold more tickets than the actual number of seats on board.
To maximise profit, revenue management departments of airlines have ingenious yield optimisation software which uses past data and a lot of other input to estimate how many tickets they should sell for each flight in order to optimise revenue.
Most airlines sell more tickets than there are actual seats on board because they know that a certain percentage of passengers does not turn up for their flight. This might simply be because these passengers suddenly are forced to stay at home because of an emergency or other urgent business, or perhaps because they arrived at the airport too late or missed their flight connection because of a previous delay.
Most often, airlines have it exactly right. For example, Airline X operates a flight with a 180-seat plane between Barcelona and Rome but decides to sell 190 tickets. If 12 passengers do not show up at the airport for whatever reason, the plane will fly to Rome with all 178 passengers having a place in the plane.
It does however mean that Airline X has sold 192 tickets instead of just 180 tickets if they wouldn’t allow their flight being overbooked.
Of course, it can happen that all 190 passengers show up for that flight which has only 180 available places. In this case, 12 unlucky passengers will face involuntary denied boarding (often abbreviated as IDB) as there is simply no place for them on board the plane.
Denied boarding can also happen with airlines who do not overbook their flights. This might be caused when an airline needs to switch planes at the very last minute, which is called an equipment swap in the airline industry.
For example, an airline might have sold all tickets on a 190-seats plane. But if this plane might suddenly have technical problems, the airline might need to replace it with another aircraft. If that plane has a smaller capacity, let’s say 180 seats, then 10 unfortunate passengers will be involuntarily denied boarding.
Whatever the reason is, airlines have the right to deny passengers to board their flight. But even though the airline has the right to do this, they do have obligations to these passengers as well!
EC/261 when denied boarding
If you are denied boarding in the EU, the airline in question has duty of care obligations and you may have the right to compensation. This is outlined in the EC/261 regulation drafted by the European Commission.
Do note that EC/261 is a regulation and actually not a hard law code. Although there is certainly some jurisprudence on how the regulation must be interpreted, some aspects of the regulation aren’t black-and-white and are therefore open to interpretation.
EC/261 only applies if your flight is:
1) Departing from an airport inside the European Union, Iceland, Norway or Switzerland irrespective of the airline operating it.
2) Your flight is arriving at an airport in the EU, Iceland, Norway or Switzerland and is operated by an airline from one of these countries.
This basically means that any flight between Rome and Milan is covered by EC/261. A Lufthansa flight from New York to Frankfurt would be covered as well, but an American Airlines flight from New York to Frankfurt would not be covered! However, an American Airlines flight from Frankfurt to New York would be covered..
If you don’t understand these basics behind EC/261, we really suggest you to again go back to our introduction article before reading on here.
Also remember that EC/261 only applies to paid tickets and to those holding fully confirmed reservations. It does not matter whether you have paid for your ticket with cash or frequent flyer miles as both are covered by EC/261, but do remember that passengers travelling free of charge or at a special reduced fare which is not publicly available (for example discounted airline employee tickets) are not covered by EC/261.
What are your rights when you are denied boarding?
In case of involuntarily denied boarding, the airline does have some obligations. According to EC/261, passengers who are involuntarily denied boarding should be compensated immediately according to Article 7.
The airline is obliged to pay each passenger a monetary sum depending on the length of the flight. The amount of money which the airline has to pay in compensation is:
a) EUR 250 for flights of 1,500 kilometres or less
b) EUR 400 for flights within the European Economic Area of more than 1,500 kilometres and all other flights between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometres.
c) EUR 600 for all other flights not falling under (a) and (b)
The distances are calculated as the crow flies, i.e. the most direct path between two points. You can use tools such as the online calculator on Travelmath to check the distance between your starting point and destination. Remember to check the distance between airports and not between the cities they serve!
If you are involuntarily denied boarding, most airlines will offer you an alternative flight to reach your destination. If your new flight:
a) Arrives no later than two hours after your original scheduled arrival time (in the category of flights of 1,500 kilometres or less); or
b) Arrives no later than three hours in case of flights within the European Economic Area of more than 1,500 kilometres and all other flights between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometres; or
c) Arrives no later than four hours for all other flights not falling under (a) and (b).
The airline can reduce the aforementioned compensation by 50 percent.
Your flight from Frankfurt to Tel Aviv is overbooked and you are involuntarily denied boarding. You were due to arrive at 1am according to your original ticket. You are rebooked on a new flight which only arrives at 6am. As the distance between the two cities is 1,828 miles, you are entitled to 400 EUR compensation.
Example two. Your flight from Frankfurt to New York is overbooked and you are again involuntarily denied boarding. Your original arrival time was 3pm. You are however rebooked on another flight which arrives at 5pm – just two hours after your original arrival time.
In this case, the distance between Frankfurt and New York is 3,865 miles (category c). But as the airline found an alternative to have you arrive within four hours of your original arrival time, it can reduce the 600 EUR compensation by 50 percent. Instead of 600 EUR, you will receive 300 EUR.
What about connecting flights?
Although the above is perfectly clear when it comes to a direct flight (eg. a direct one-way flight with Ryanair from Valencia to Dublin) – it becomes a bit more complicated when you have a ticket which involves a connection.
EC/261 specifies that in determining the distance, the basis is always the last destination at which the denial of boarding took place and will thus delay the passenger’s arrival after the scheduled time.
If you fly Beirut-Rome-Brussels on Alitalia and are only being denied to board in Rome, the distance concerned would be Rome to Brussels and not Beirut to Brussels.
However, if you are being denied boarding in Beirut for the first flight to Rome, the airline is on the hook for the full Beirut to Brussels distance and not just the distance of the Beirut to Rome flight.
Assistance when denied boarding
Besides compensation, an airline also has the obligation to assist a passenger who is denied boarding in accordance with EC/261 articles 8 and 9. This means that the passenger has the right to reimbursement of his ticket, or being re-routed to his destination at a later time. It is up to you to decide between these two!
The airline also has a duty of care to passengers who are denied boarding. We will address both of these obligations in depth below.
Passengers who are involuntarily denied boarding have the choice between demanding a refund of their ticket, or to be rerouted on another flight to their destination.
If you ask for reimbursement, the airline must pay back the full cost of the ticket within seven days. Note that your ticket will be made void and you no longer have to right to ask the airline for a later flight.
Denied boarding at an intermediate point
It can happen that you are denied boarding at an intermediate point of your journey. If for example you booked an Air France ticket Turin-Paris-London, you may be denied boarding in Paris for your second flight to London for whatever reason.
In this case, you do have the right to ask for the reimbursement and to be brought back to your point of departure (Turin) at the earliest opportunity if your original travel plan is no longer relevant due to being denied to board your flight.
This could for example be the case if you have a business meeting in London which you have missed thanks to being denied boarding, making it rather pointless to continue the trip to London at a later hour. Another example might be having a short two-day weekend trip planned to London, which would be reduced to only a few hours if the airline can only put you on a flight the next day.
If you do however wish to continue your journey to the final destination, the airline must offer rerouting to your final destination under comparable circumstances “at the earliest opportunity”.
If a passenger wants, he or she can also ask the airline for a reroute to the final destination at a later date of your own choice, although this is subject to the availability of seats. For example, if you have a simple Dublin-Madrid flight on 10th February and you are denied boarding, you may ask the airline if they can just issue you a ticket instead on the same flight a month later.
Note that “at the earliest opportunity” as written in EC/261 is open for interpretation. Let’s take again our Turin-Paris-London example. If you are denied boarding in Paris for the flight to London, it is generally considered acceptable if Air France puts you on the next flight to London departing four hours later.
You might try to argue with the airline whether or not they can put you on an earlier British Airways instead, but you are unlikely to convince Air France to do so, as it of course cheaper for them to keep you on their own flights instead of paying an expensive last minute seat for you on one of their competitors!
Remember what we said before. EC/261 is a regulation, not a hard law code. A lot of the rules are open for interpretation and although there is jurisprudence on some issues, there are still a lot of grey areas. In the case mentioned above, you will probably have a hard time convincing any European judge that Air France must rebook you on an earlier British Airways flight instead of their own flight four hours later, given that most likely the airline’s solution will be seen as “reasonable”.
What is the next available flight is too far out?
This changes when the next flight might be a long while away. Let’s take the example of someone being denied boarding on a Marrakech-Athens flight of Aegean Airlines. As this flight is only operated twice a week, you might need to wait four days until you can be accommodated by the same airline to be finally flown to Athens.
In such a case, the airline in question is likely to rebook you on another airline. Although you may suggest your preferred flight you wish to be rebooked on, you don’t have the right to determine on which flight an airline should rebook you on.
In this particular situation the airline will probably first try to put you on a partner airline within the same alliance, for example a Lufthansa flight via Frankfurt given that Lufthansa is a Star Alliance carrier just like Aegean is. This is not only cheaper for them, but also easier to do given that agreements between the carriers are already in place.
Only when there are no options on partner airlines, will an airline search for other alternatives, which in this case could be a direct flight on Royal Air Maroc or Air France flights via Paris.
You could of course give your preferred flight rebooking options to the airline. We would certainly recommend you to have a look at all the options by checking flight booking tools or airport departure boards and to politely inquire with the airline if you found a suitable alternative.
However, remember that you don’t have the right to determine on which carrier you should be rebooked on. As long as the offered alternative is considered “reasonable” – an airline can rebook you on any flight they like, basically.
What if the solution of the airline is unacceptable?
Most often, passengers who are involuntarily denied boarding are instantly accommodated by the airline and offered a solution which is acceptable to both parties.
However, it can happen that an airline flat out refuses to rebook you another carrier and tells you that you have to wait for four days until their next flight departs. Unfortunately, we are now entering a grey area given that EC/261 is a regulation and there is a lot of room for interpretation.
If you really do not want to wait for four days, you can always buy a new ticket home yourself and ask the airline afterwards to reimburse the costs.
The airline is likely to deny such a request, after which you would probably have to bring the company to a small claims court which would decide whether the proposed rerouting by the airline was indeed “at the earliest opportunity” and whether they fulfilled their duty as part of EC/261.
If an airline only wants to fly you to your destination four days later a court may well rule that this is unacceptable and would order the airline to fully reimburse the new flight ticket you bought besides the compensation.
But remember the earlier example of our Turin-Paris-London flight. If the airline offers you an alternative flight four hours later, but you decide unilaterally to book another flight two hours later, you will probably have a hard time convincing a small claims court that the airline should pay for your new ticket as it will probably rule that the solution offered by the airline was “reasonable” within the scope of EC/261.
The bottom line is that whatever the situation is you find yourself in, you should always attempt to settle the argument in cooperation with the airline before escalating the situation. It is highly important that you show yourself to be cooperative and that you tried to honestly negotiate a good solution.
Just booking an alternative flight straight away after being involuntarily denied boarding and expecting the airline to reimburse it will likely fail, as you will not have given the airline the chance to come up with an acceptable alternative.
EC/261 is certainly not a carte blanche to demand whatever you like, not even when your rights have been infringed!
Duty of care
If you are denied boarding, the airline also has a duty of care while you are waiting to be rerouted on another flight. This means that you should be offered free of charge:
1) Meals and refreshments in reasonable relation to your waiting time.
2) Hotel accommodation when an overnight stay of one or more nights becomes necessary.
3) Transport between the airport and the hotel.
4) Two telephone calls, telex, fax or e-mails.
If an airline can only rebook you on a flight the next day, it will have to put you in a hotel for the night. However, the duty of care provision could also imply that the airline needs to pay for an extra hotel night at your final destination.
Let’s say that you have booked a two day, one-night business trip to London. Due to being involuntarily denied boarding you arrive a full day later at your destination – the day when you were actually supposed to fly back home according to your original plans!
As you still have two full days of work to do in London, you now might need to pay for an extra night accommodation at your destination, which you can ask the airline to reimburse.
Duty of care provisions are always based on what is considered to be “reasonable”. If you are denied boarding, but the flight you are rerouted on will depart just an hour later, an airline will probably not offer you a free meal and refreshments – which is totally understandable and reasonable.
If you have to wait for some two to four hours at the airport, the airline is likely to hand out vouchers which you can use at any of the airport cafes and restaurants.
It can happen that no vouchers are handed out by the airline’s employees. This could be because your flight is departing from an outstation airport where the airline in question has not directly employed any personnel who can arrange you a voucher, but it could also be the case that an airline is unwilling to pay for your meal even though it is your right to demand one.
If this is the case, you can make your own reasonable expenses and claim this back from the airline at a later point. Note that “reasonable” is the key word when it comes to EC/261. It will most likely not be a problem to ask the airline to reimburse a 25 EUR lunch with a drink – even if you have to escalate this to a small claim courts this will probably hold up.
However, remember that EC/261 is not a carte blanche to splurge – a 150 EUR lunch bill including a good bottle of red will not be deemed as “reasonable” by the airline.
Who arranges the hotel?
The same counts for accommodation in a hotel. If you are involuntarily denied boarding and are only offered a new flight the next day, most likely the airline will also book a hotel for you. Airlines often have advance deals with major hotel chains exactly for circumstances like these. Most airlines are well accustomed when it comes to arranging such bookings!
Always check first with the airline if they can arrange a hotel for you before you make your own reservation!
It can however happen that an airline is not in a position to book a hotel for you, or that an airline flat out refuses to do this even though you have the full right to a room. In this case, you can book a hotel room yourself, but you should again take the “reasonable” bit into account.
That doesn’t mean you should stay in a dirty, poorly rated 25 EUR/night motel some 40 miles away from the airport! It is perfectly reasonable to book a 4* airport hotel, even if it might cost 150 EUR per night. However, opting for a full suite when standard rooms are available, or splurging on a 600 EUR five-star hotel when decent 4* options are available might not be considered as “reasonable”.
If you do so, an airline will probably refuse to reimburse the costs and you will have a hard time convincing a small claim courts that these costs were within the scope of the EC/261 regulation.
Just like EC/261 does not specify on which carrier an airline has to rebook you in case you are involuntarily denied boarding, the regulation also doesn’t specify in what kind of hotel you should be accommodated when it comes to the duty of care provisions.
EC/261 does not specify whether this should be a cheap Travelodge or ibis hotel, or a luxury Sofitel or Hyatt. If an airline arranges the hotel for you – they can basically decide unilaterally which hotel this will be.
Generally speaking, most full-service airlines will always take the passenger type into account when arranging a hotel. Those flying in first or business class, as well as those holding the highest status in an airline’s frequent flyer programme will most often be accommodated in better hotels than economy class passengers without airline status.
If you are unhappy with the arrangements made you can of course always book something yourself. Do however note that the airline will have zero obligations to reimburse this for you if they offered a reasonable alternative.
There are a few notable exceptions when duty of care does not apply. In case you are denied boarding at your home airport and your are put on a flight leaving the next day, you might have a hard time arguing for a hotel when the commute back to your home address is only an hour.
Also, if you ask for a refund and abandon your trip because you want to arrange new travel arrangements yourself, you would also typically waive all rights to duty of care, unless the situation happens at an intermediate point of your journey.
Never forget that you should have a good quality travel insurance when taking a flight. Incurred costs which might not be covered by the airline under the provisions of EC/261 may be fully covered by your travel insurance.
Do also note that EC/261 does only apply to involuntary denied boarding, delays, flight reschedules, cancellations and downgrades in travel class. Damaged or missing baggage is for example covered by the regulations of the Montreal Convention. Air disasters and personal injury are covered by the Warsaw Convention.
What is not considered as involuntarily denied boarding?
It is also good to understand that there is a huge difference between being denied boarding and involuntary denied boarding (IDB). The latter means you are denied boarding against your will in a situation which is not your fault, such as a flight being overbooked. This is fully covered by EC/261.
There are however a few possible situations where you might be denied boarding for some other reasons, such as:
– You arrive too late at the airport and miss the check-in deadline.
– You arrive too late at the boarding gate and the doors have already closed.
– You do not have a valid paid ticket.
– You are considered to be a danger to in-flight safety (aggressive behaviour, drunkenness).
– You are unwilling to follow airline or aviation rules and instructions by the crew.
– You are ruled unfit to travel, for example due to a medical condition.
These cases are not considered as involuntary denied boarding and thus do not fall under EC/261! In some cases, you will find however that the airline is willing to accommodate you by putting you on the next available flight free of charge, think for example about suddenly falling ill at the airport.
Do however note that the airline often is not obliged to help you out in such a case, and that any willingness to do so should be seen as an extremely nice gesture on their behalf.
If you have to make expenses which are not covered by the airline, such as having to buy a completely new ticket to reach your destination or a night in a hotel, you might find that a good travel insurance will reimburse extra costs made in some of the above situations.
How to decrease your chances of involuntary denied boarding
As we wrote before, involuntarily denied boarding most often happens in cases of a flight being overbooked or a flight being operated by a smaller aeroplane than originally planned.
If that’s the case, most airlines certainly do not pick passengers at random who will be offloaded from the flight and who can remain on board and fly as planned. Rather, airlines use hard data or common procedures.
Let’s again look at an example. This time we have a Lufthansa plane flying from Milan to Frankfurt. There is space for 190 people but a total of 195 passengers turned up at the airport for the flight – the flight is thus overbooked by five.
First of all, an airline will most likely ask for volunteers who want to be voluntarily offloaded and accommodated on another flight. Although this unfortunately does not always happen in reality, airlines are actually obliged to do so.
EC/261 literally specifies that an airline should “first call for volunteers to surrender their reservations in exchange for benefits under conditions to be agreed between the passenger concerned and the operating air carrier”.
If you volunteer, an airline is obliged to offer re-routing to your final destination at the earliest possibility and has a duty of care just like we outlined above. However, since you voluntarily accepted the changes and were not involuntarily denied boarding, you do not have the right to compensation.
It is therefore no surprise that often no volunteers step up at first, which will often result in the airline upping the ante. It might for example throw in a flight voucher or even cash money to any volunteer wanting to give up his or her seat!
By all means, if the offer is acceptable for you, take it. You can certainly try to negotiate a better deal. If a voucher of 100 euro is offered, it never hurts to ask for a 200 euro voucher or to check if the airline could also give cash instead of a flight voucher.
Another typical example is asking for a free upgrade to business class in case you volunteer to be put on the next available flight. It might not be possible or the airline might not be willing, but it never hurts to ask. In many cases, you do have some bargaining power as long as your request is not outlandish.
If you do volunteer, make sure that you know when the next flight you can be accommodated on will depart before you accept the airline’s offer.
When no volunteers step up, or if the airline decides not to go through this process, the gate agents will manually select passengers who will be bumped from the flight (and who will thus be involuntarily denied boarding).
Who will be offloaded?
There are some golden rules when it comes to who will be offloaded and which passengers an airline would never be bumped from a flight. Most often, the gate agents will simply let their computers determine who will be offloaded according to certain algorithms.
An airline will never offload any of their frequent flyers, as these people are considered to be loyal customers whose business is highly valued. This does not only count for the highest frequent flyer elites of the airline in question, but also those of their alliance or partner airlines.
Even if you hold the lowest level of a frequent flyer programme – you are still valued higher by an airline’s IT system than passengers who did not sign up for any frequent flyer programme. For this reason alone it is worth it to sign up for such a programme, even if you only intend to fly once with an airline!
Passengers with onward connections – especially those flying to faraway destinations or airport with infrequent connections – are also ranked higher by IT systems and are unlikely to be offloaded. After all, it is easier to rebook a passenger who only flies from Milan to Frankfurt than a passenger with a ticket which sees him flying Milan-Frankfurt-Chicago-Anchorage.
Those with intercontinental connections usually get the preference above people on connecting flights within Europe. It is generally much easier to reroute people on alternative flights within Europe. Besides, compensation rates for passengers on intercontinental journeys are much higher than for those on a simple, short European flight.
Families and groups
This can be a mixed bag. If a flight is overbooked by five, an airline might decide it is easier to inconvenience a single family of five (two adults, three children) rather than selecting five individual passengers.
Think of it, it’s less customers who might potentially get angry, and arranging accommodation is likely to be cheaper as well for the airline as a big family room in a hotel will now be sufficient instead of having to arrange five rooms for five individual travellers.
At the other hand, an airline is unlikely to break up travelling groups. If an airline oversold a flight by three, it will most likely not break up a family of five by letting two of them fly and deny boarding to three of them!
If you travel as part of a family or group, you should therefore always book your flights together on one ticket if you can. If you make separate bookings, an airline IT system would simply not know that you are part of a larger travelling group or family!
You also significantly decrease your chances of being involuntarily denied boarding by checking in as early as possible (whether online or at the airport in person) and turning up at the gate when boarding starts.
It can happen that an airline decided to just wait and see who turns up last at the gate. This is because there is always a good chance that some people might miss the cut-off time when the boarding gate closes altogether.
If that happens, the airline automatically managed to free up a spot on the flight and does not have to pay any compensation or duty of care. In fact, passengers who miss the boarding cut-off time might even have to pay for a spot on the next available flight out of their own pocket!
Of course, if everyone arrives on time at the boarding gate and you are just the unlucky last passenger who is involuntarily denied boarding, then the airline will have to accommodate you according to EC/261.
Another theory is that passengers with checked baggage are also less likely to be involuntarily denied boarding. This is because the airline company would have to legally offload a passenger’s baggage from the hold if the person is taken from the flight.
Even if the passenger is rebooked on a flight two hours later, his bag would have to travel on the same plane for security reasons. Locating and offloading a bag takes time and could cause a late departure and additional problems for the airline, which is why some airlines may opt to avoid this.
Computer vs. human
While most airlines let a computer algorithm decide who will be involuntarily denied boarding, there are some airlines which are rumoured to handpick passengers. You could even call it a form of discrimination.
We have heard stories of airlines seemingly selecting passengers by profiling them, sometimes with the help of a bit of data. The idea behind it is that young, educated passengers from EU member states are more likely to know about their EC/261 rights than elderly passengers from faraway countries.
For example, an airline operating a Berlin to Moscow flight might think that they have an easier time offloading an elderly Uzbek babushka from the flight than a German hipster.
Unfortunately there are still airlines who try to do everything to save some money by doing the best they can to escape their EC/261 obligations. These airlines will not pro-actively mention their obligations and fully know that there are certain passengers who do not know their rights.
That Berlin hipster will demand compensation and duty of care in an airport hotel, while the poor old Uzbek babushka might just sleep on the airport floor unaware that she can claim a hotel room and receive compensation..
No hard rule
That said, there is no hard rule when it comes to which passengers are being involuntarily denied boarding. Some airlines might only follow a single rule from above, others a complicated combination of some of the above, while others might have their entire own system how to decide who is being offloaded.
Whatever the case is, be sure to prepare for any eventualities and be aware what your rights are as an airline passenger and what obligations airlines have. Some airlines play by the book and are very forthcoming by proactively helping you with a reroute, hotel and compensation.
Unfortunately there are airlines which will do everything to get out of their EC/261 obligations, which could result in a prolonged fight to claim your compensation and/or a suitable reroute.
If that is the case, do read the 7th chapter listed in the index below as it details the steps you should take to get your compensation and/or reimbursement from an airline!
EU Flight Compensation Guide Chapters
1. EU Flight Compensation Guide: All You Need to Know About EC/261
2. Guide: EU Rights and Compensation When Your Flight is Cancelled
3. Guide: EU Passenger Rights and Flight Delay Compensation
4. Guide: EU Rights and Compensation When Your Flight is Rescheduled
5. Guide: EU Rights and Compensation When You Are Denied Boarding (current chapter)
6. Guide: EU Rights and Compensation When You Are Downgraded
7. DIY Guide How To Get Airline Compensation Without Involving a Claim Bureau