In this guide, we will explain all you need to know about the EC/261 regulation, the legislation which regulates flight compensation in the European Union (EU).
Rules and regulations
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 your flight is cancelled, delayed or when your flight is overbooked and you are denied boarding.
Although these passenger rights might follow the same principles, they do differ a lot when it comes to your exact rights and compensation you could potentially claim.
In this guide, we will explain you how flight compensation is being regulated in the EU, what your rights are as a passenger and in which cases you might be entitled to claim compensation from the airline.
Within the EU these passenger rights, as well as the obligations of airlines, 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 as this is how most airlines and courts refer to the regulation.
In the above link you can find the full text of the regulation, which is available in the languages of each and every 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.
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.
What is actually covered by EC/261?
Although the EC/261 law also regulates the rights of train, ferry and bus passengers – we will look solely at flights here. Basically, EC/261 covers your rights as an airline passenger in five possible situations:
1) Your flight is retimed or rescheduled.
2) Your flight is delayed.
3) Your flight is cancelled.
4) You are denied boarding, for example when the flight is overbooked and you are offloaded as a result.
5) You are downgraded to a lower travel class than you originally booked.
We first want to clarify whether your flight actually falls under the EC/261 regulation, as in some cases EC/261 might not apply. 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 more rare these days: an old-fashioned paper ticket) issued.
It does not matter whether you have paid for your ticket with cash or frequent flyer miles – both are covered by EC/261. Similarly it doesn’t matter whether you snagged a discounted economy fare in a special sale or paid for a full-price business class ticket. Both fall under the exact same EC/261 provisions.
However, passengers travelling free of charge or on special reduced fare ticket which is not publicly available (discounted employee tickets, for example) 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 were thus forced 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. This flight would is completely within the EU and operated by an EU airline as well, given that 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 airline based in the European Economic Area (Norwegian is based in Norway).
– A flight of United Airlines from New York to Oslo on the other hand would not fall under EC/261 as it is operated by a non-EU airline. That said, a United flight from Oslo to New York would have been covered by EC/261 as it would depart from an EU/EEA airport.
What about flights with an European airline 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 you could easily book a ticket to fly just the Dubai to Muscat leg. Similarly, KLM operates an Amsterdam-Singapore-Bali flight and allows people to buy a ticket for just the Singapore to Bali portion.
These flights – known as ‘fifth freedom flights’ in the airline industry – are not covered by EC/261 as they fall completely outside of the geographical area of the EU/EEA. You would be protected if you fly on KLM from Amsterdam to Singapore or Bali, but if you only get on board in Singapore and fly from there to Bali, you are not covered by the regulation.
If that is the case, there could be other national regulations or laws which you could perhaps fall back on, although that is beyond the scope of this article and would be something you need to research yourself.
Even if your flight does not fall under the EC/261 regulation, you could still ask your airline for compensation if you feel you have been wronged. However, do note that the airline is under no obligation to comply. Any gesture offered by the airline (whether it is cash, a voucher or a few thousand frequent flyer miles thrown in) would be exactly that: a goodwill gesture!
Now that you know the basics behind the EC/261 regulation, it is time to look at the specifics. In the index below, we have listed all of the possible situations which could arise when you take a flight, such as delays, cancellations, being denied boarding and many more.
In these individual chapters, we will describe what your rights are, what kind of compensation you are entitled to, and give you some real-life examples to fully understand the regulation and its common rules.
Last but not least, we also have a do-it-yourself guide which explains how you can actually claim the compensation from the airline without having to involve a claim bureau. Given that claim bureaus always demand a cut of your compensation, there is no need to hand over part of your compensation money given that you can easily do the work all by yourself if you know what you are doing.
EU Flight Compensation Guide Chapters
1. EU Flight Compensation Guide: All You Need to Know About EC/261 (current chapter)
2. Guide: EU Rights and Compensation When Your Flight is Rescheduled
3. Guide: EU Passenger Rights and Flight Delay Compensation
4. Guide: EU Rights and Compensation When Your Flight is Cancelled
5. Guide: EU Rights and Compensation When You Are Denied Boarding
6. Guide: EU Rights and Compensation When You Are Downgraded
7. DIY Guide How To Get Airline Compensation Without Involving a Claim Bureau