In this guide, we will discuss the rules and laws of the European Union (EU) when it comes to your rights as a passenger when you are involuntarily denied boarding in case of an overbooked flight – and what kind of compensation you are entitled to in this situation.
Many countries in the world have consumer protection laws which regulate both your rights as a consumer when buying goods or services as well as the duties of a company from which you buy a certain product. This is no different when it comes to buying an airline ticket.
Many countries have laws and regulations which specify both your rights as a passenger as well as the obligations of the carrier with whom you fly. Some nations, such as for example Canada, are known for their passenger-friendly laws, while in other countries you might be out on your own when faced with a flight cancellation.
Although these passenger rights usually are based on the same premises, they do differ a lot when it comes to your exact rights and potential compensation.
Within the EU these rights, as well as the obligations of airliners, are described in the 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. As the text of the regulation is fairly long and can be quite lawyerish in its use of language, we will break it down for you in easy-to-understand bits.
What is actually covered by EC/261?
Although the EC/261 law also regulates the rights of a train, ferry and bus passenger – we will look solely at flights here. Basically, EC/261 covers your rights in four possible situations:
1) You are denied boarding, for example when the flight is overbooked and some passengers need to be offloaded.
2) Your flight is delayed.
3) Your flight is cancelled altogether.
4) You are downgraded to a lower travel class than stated on your booking.
In this guide, we take a look at what your rights are when you are denied boarding by the airline.
Needless to say, you are only covered if you have a fully confirmed reservation for your flight, which means that you need to have an e-ticket (or old-fashioned paper ticket) issued.
It does not matter whether you have paid for your ticket with cash or frequent flyer miles – both are fully covered by EC/261. Note however that passengers travelling free of charge or at a special reduced fare not publicly available are not covered by EC/261.
To which flights and airlines does EC/261 apply?
Your flight is covered by the EC/261 regulation if it meets at least one of the following two requirements:
1) Your flight is departing from an airport inside the European Union, Iceland, Norway or Switzerland.
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.
The fact that Iceland, Norway and Switzerland are included is because these countries are part of the European Economic Area (EEA) and had to introduce the same regulation, in case you wondered.
Let’s take a look at a few practical examples to see when your flight is covered by EC/261, and when not.
– A Ryanair flight from Brussels to Madrid is fully covered by EC/261 as it is fully within the EU and operated by an EU airline as Ryanair is based in Ireland.
– A Norwegian flight from New York to Oslo is covered by EC/261 as it arrives at an airport in the European Economic Area (EEA) and is operated by an EEA airline.
– A flight of United Airlines from New York to Oslo would on the other hand not be covered by EC/261 as it is operated by a non-EU airline. On the other hand, flying United from Oslo to New York would have been covered by EC/261 as it would depart from an EU/EEA airport.
What about flights on European airlines outside of the EU/EEA?
There are a number of interesting routes operated by European airlines which fall completely outside of EU/EEA countries.
Swiss for example operates an interesting Zurich-Dubai-Muscat route, and it allows you to book a ticket to fly just on the Dubai to Muscat portion. Similarly, KLM operates an Amsterdam-Singapore-Bali flight.
These flights – known as ‘fifth freedom flights’ in the airline industry – are not covered by EC/261 as they fall completely outside of the EU/EEA. This means that as a passenger you would be protected if you fly on KLM from Amsterdam to Singapore or Bali. If you however only book a KLM ticket from Singapore to Bali, you are not covered by the regulation.
Why am I denied to board my flight?
Airlines often overbook their flights for a simple reason: pure economics. If a plane has let’s say 180 seats, it is not uncommon for some airlines to sell 190 tickets as they now that on average there is always a certain percentage of passengers who do not show up.
These no-shows as they are called might perhaps be sick, arrived too late at the airport, or simply changed their travel plans. Sometimes it however happens that all these passengers show up for the flight – in which case there is of course a big problem as there are more passengers than seats on the aircraft.
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 and when the only available aircraft is a bit smaller having only 180 seats, it means that 10 passengers will be denied boarding.
Airlines have the full right to deny boarding to passengers in these cases, although most companies will first look for volunteers who might accept an offer to take a later flight in exchange for a cash benefit. Do note that by voluntarily accepting the airline’s offer, you waive your right to compensation according to EC/261.
If no volunteers step up, or if the airline decides not to go through this process, they will manually select passengers who will be bumped from the flight (called involuntarily denied boarding – often abbreviated as IDB).
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 calculator on Travelmath to check the distance between your starting point and destination.
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 a 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, netting you 300 EUR.
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 for your Paris to London flight if the flight is perhaps overbooked.
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 the denial of boarding.
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 travel to London. Or if you have a short two-day weekend trip planned to London which would be reduced to only a few hours.
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 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 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!
When 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 alternative to the airline, there is no absolute right for you to determine on which flight they should rebook you.
In this particular situation the airline will probably first try to put you on a partner airline within the same alliance, e.g. Lufthansa. Only when there are no options on partner airlines, will they search for other alternatives, for example a flight on Royal Air Maroc or Air France.
What if the solution of the airline is unacceptable?
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. If you really do not want to wait for four days, you can always buy a new ticket home yourself and ask the airline 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 to rule whether the proposed rerouting by the airline was indeed “at the earliest opportunity” and whether they indeed fulfilled their duty as part of EC/261.
Make sure that whatever the situation is that you always attempt to settle the argument in cooperation with the airline before escalating the situation. Just booking an alternative flight straight away after being involuntarily denied boarding and expecting the airline to reimburse it will 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!
Duty of care
If you are denied boarding, the airline also has a duty of care while you are waiting to be rerouted. 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.
Note that point 2 does not only entail a night in a hotel if you are for example only rerouted on an alternative flight departing the next day, but that it can also mean any additional nights at your destination which may become necessary.
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 if the flight you are rerouted on already departs an hour later, an airline will probably not offer you a free meal and refreshments.
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, perhaps because your flight is departing from an outstation airport where the airline in question has not directly employed any personnel who can arrange this for you.
If this is the case, you can make your own reasonable expenses and claim this back at a later point with the airline. Note that “reasonable” is the key word when it comes to EC/261. A 25 EUR lunch with a drink will probably not cause any problem if you ask the airline to reimburse this. 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 a night accommodation in a hotel. An airline is most likely to book a hotel for you in case you are involuntarily denied boarding. They have advance deals with major hotel chains in place for such circumstances and are accustomed when it comes to arranging such bookings.
Always check first with the airline if they can arrange this for you before you make your own provisions!
It can however be a possibility when the airline is not in a position to book a hotel for you, or where the airline refuses to do so for you despite having the right to a free night of accommodation. In this case, you can book a hotel 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. It is perfectly reasonable to book a 4* 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”.
Note that EC/261 only regulates the provision that as a passenger you have the right to a hotel in some circumstances. It 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 booked in better hotels than economy passengers.
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 what they offered was not good enough for you.
If you do need to make arrangements yourself as the airline is unable or unwilling to do so, do take the costs into account if you are hoping for the airline to reimburse it. Legacy airlines are less likely to make a problem out of a 250 EUR/night hotel reimbursement if the passenger flew in business class or is a valued frequent flyer. Needless to say, low-cost airlines might make a problem when faced with a request to reimburse a 250 EUR/night hotel and might decline it on the grounds that it was not “reasonable”!
Definitely take common sense and the airline you fly with into account.
There are a few notable exceptions when duty of care does not apply. In case you are denied boarding at your home town 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 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.
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 denied boarding, delays, cancellations and downgrade of 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?
There are a few possible situations where you might be denied boarding which are not covered by EC/261. These are:
– If you arrive too late at the airport and miss the check-in deadline.
– If you arrive too late at the boarding gate and the doors have already closed.
– If you do not have a valid paid ticket.
– If you are considered to be a danger to in-flight safety (aggressive behaviour, drunkenness).
– If you are unwilling to follow airline or aviation rules and instructions by the crew.
– If you are ruled unfit to travel, for example due to a medical condition.
In some cases, you will find the airline being willing to accommodate you by putting you on the next available flight free of charge. Do however note that the airline is by no means obliged to do so, 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 changes of involuntarily denied boarding
As we wrote before, involuntarily denied boarding happens most often in cases of a flight being overbooked or a flight being operated by a smaller aeroplane than originally planned.
Airlines certainly do not pick passengers at random to offload from the flight but rather use some data points for this. 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.
The lucky few
First of all, 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 and those of their alliance or partner airlines.
Even if you are a member on the lowest level of a frequent flyer programme – you are still valued higher by the airline 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 the airline.
Passengers with onward connections – especially to more faraway destinations or places with infrequent service – are also ranked higher and are unlikely to be denied boarding. 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 international connections always 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 might 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 you are a sports team of eight people who all booked their flights on one ticket, an airline will probably not opt to offload five people of this group and to let three people fly as planned.
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 offload a passenger’s baggage from the hold if the person is taken from the flight.
As this might cause some extra time locating the bag, it can 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 premise here is that young, urban 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 who might even throw a big argument at the gate. Unfortunately there are still airlines who try to do everything to save some money by ignoring their EC/261 obligations by simply not mentioning the rights to their passengers.
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 to know what your rights are as an airline passenger. 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. In our fifth guide (see link below) we will explain what you should do in such situations.
This guide is the first of five guides in our series on EC/261 airline compensation and passenger rights.
1. Guide: EU Rights and Compensation When Denied Boarding (current chapter)
2. Guide: How to Get Compensation When Your EU Flight Is Delayed
3. Guide: EU Rights and Compensation When Flight Is Cancelled – coming soon
4. Guide: EU Compensation When You Are Downgraded – coming soon
5. DIY Guide How To Get Airline Compensation Without Involving a Claim Bureau – coming soon