EC/261 Passenger Rights in the Time of the Corona Virus Crisis

The European Union (EU) has clarified its EC/261 regulation on passenger rights saying that no compensation will be paid out if an airline has to cancel a flight because of the corona virus crisis.

EC/261

In the EU, passenger rights are enshrined in a regulation officially known as (EC) No 261/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council (abbreviated as EC/261).

This regulation details the rights of passengers and duties of airlines when it comes to being denied boarding (in case of an overbooked flight), flight delays, a cancelled flight, and being downgraded to a lower travel class.

Corona crisis

With almost all airlines now cancelling flights due to the corona (COVID-19) virus crisis – with some even grounding their entire fleet – thousands of passengers are left stranded throughout the world while others have seen their future trips cancelled.

Many passengers have been asking the question whether or not they have the right to compensation in this case.

European Commission

The European Commission has now clarified the intent of EC/261, basically saying that the corona virus crisis should be considered as an extraordinary circumstance which frees the airlines of having to pay out compensation in case flights are cancelled.

This also includes flights which are cancelled due to low demand. Although normally this could be reason enough for compensation – the fact that closed borders, travel bans and the corona virus itself is causing it are all deemed extraordinary circumstances.

eu flags berlaymont
In the European Union (EU) and the wider European Economic Area (EEA), passenger rights are outlined in the EC/261 regulation.

Transport commissioner

Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean said: “In light of the mass cancellations and delays passengers and transport operators face due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commission wants to provide legal certainty on how to apply EU passenger rights.

“In case of cancellations the transport provider must reimburse or re-route the passengers. If passengers themselves decide to cancel their journeys, reimbursement of the ticket depends on its type, and companies may offer vouchers for subsequent use.”

Duty of care

The full clarification by the European Commission can be read here – and it is well worth a read. Although airlines are off the hook for compensation, they still have a duty of care to their passengers.

This means that the duty of care principle as detailed in the original EC/261 regulation still applies in times of the corona crisis, which means for example that stranded passengers who are eligible have the right to free accommodation and meals. Even though these passengers saw their flight cancelled, they also have the right to be rerouted on another flight to their destination.

As airlines are currently overwhelmed with the situation, it can be the case that they are unable to pro-actively help out on the spot. Passengers can however book their own hotel until they are finally rerouted to their destination and later ask for a reimbursement.

Do note that if you decide to cancel your ticket (as opposed to the airline cancelling the flight) or received a future flight credit voucher, you typically wave all duty of care rights.

room desk hotel
Airlines still have a duty of care under EC/261 – even in the time of the corona virus crisis. This can include giving stranded passengers due to a cancelled flight a hotel for the night until they are rerouted on a new flight. ©Paliparan

Cancellations

In case you want to cancel your flight, you need to check with the airline what their current COVID-19 policy is. Most airlines have issued waivers allowing you to get a refund or change your travel date to any future moment for free. This can be done either online or by contacting the airline through their call centre or on social media.

In case an airline cancels your ticket, you can opt between receiving a full refund, a future flight credit or demand to be rerouted on another flight (you cannot opt for multiple – if you want a refund, the airline has no longer any responsibility to get you to your destination).

Note however that a lot of borders are currently closed and that some countries might have entry restrictions for certain nationals. It might thus be very well impossible for an airline to reroute you on another flight to your destination. If your travel is non-essential – you should simply take the refund and cancel your trip. This really is not the time for leisure travel.

A detailed guide

If you want to read a detailed guide about the EC/261 regulation, duty of care, compensation, and which flight situations are covered by it, we recommend you to read our special EC/261 guides.

So far we have written one guide detailing EC/261 and flight cancellations, as well as one about EC/261 and flight delays (other guides will follow soon).

Airlines

One thing to remember is that airlines have increasingly difficult times at the moment. Many airlines are in a dire economic situation, grounded their planes and laid off thousands of employees.

Call centres are currently overwhelmed with thousands of phone calls – so getting an answer to your question might take some time.

lot polish airlines 787 dreamliner
LOT Polish Airlines is one of the many airlines which decided to ground its planes for the foreseeable future. ©Paliparan

Considerate

In these days we should all be compassionate to other travellers and to the people working at the airlines. Priority should go to those passengers who are now left stranded or have a booking upcoming in the next 72 hours. If you need to contact an airline for non-urgent EC/261-related issues or for a booking upcoming in let’s say May – be considerate and deal with it at a later time.

Some airlines anyway flat out refuse to deal now with issues in late spring and summer as their current waivers only cover the flights within the next weeks or months as they want to see first how the corona virus crisis unfolds before deciding whether to cancel flights later in the year or to give passengers the opportunity to freely cancel such trips.

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Koen

Koen

Koen works as a freelance journalist covering south-eastern Europe and is the founding father and editor-in-chief of Paliparan. As a contributor to some major Fleet Street newspapers and some lesser known publications in the Balkans, he travels thousands of miles each year for work as well as on his personal holidays. Whether it is horse riding in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, exploring the backstreets of Bogotá, or sipping a glass of moschofilero in a Greek beachside taverna, Koen loves to immerse himself into the local culture, explore new places and eat and drink himself around the world.

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