Flight Delays: Your Rights and How to Prepare

It’s not uncommon to be surprised when your flight actually departs on time, even without any major travel disruptions. Typical delays can be caused by late passengers, toddler tantrums, or more significant issues like strikes, air traffic problems, and rare but possible events like lightning, volcanic eruptions, or flooding. While passengers have well-defined rights to assistance and compensation in case of cancellations, their entitlements in the event of delays are less well-known. Travel experts say delays are far more frequent, as most disrupted flights still take off, albeit with lengthy waits. Here’s a breakdown of what to do when your flight is impacted by a delay.

Under UK law, airlines are obligated to provide passengers experiencing ‘significant delays’ with food and drink (often in voucher form), communication methods, and temporary accommodation and transportation if their flight is delayed for a day. ‘Significant delays’ are defined as waits exceeding two hours for short-haul flights, three hours for medium-haul flights, and four hours for long-haul flights. Passengers on flights regulated by the UK or EU are also legally entitled to compensation for delays exceeding three hours from the scheduled arrival time, starting at £210 for short-haul flights, unless the delay is attributed to ‘extraordinary circumstances’ beyond the airline’s control.

These rules apply to all flights departing from UK or EU airports, regardless of the airline’s origin, according to MoneySavingExpert. This means they apply to flights between two EU countries or any EU-regulated flight that doesn’t involve the UK. Typically, they also apply if a delay prevents you from boarding a connecting flight from a non-UK, non-EU airport when both legs are part of a single booking or if that connecting flight is similarly delayed.

If your flight is delayed for more than five hours and you choose not to board, you’re entitled to a full refund regardless of the cause, according to Citizens’ Advice. However, be cautious if you intend to reach your destination by other means: the return flight purchased through your original operator might be included in the same refunded booking.

The first step to protecting your holiday from delays starts even before packing your bags: travel insurance. Having travel insurance means you’ll be covered even if the airline doesn’t provide compensation. Airlines might not compensate if they can prove the delay was due to an uncontrollable event, such as a volcanic eruption grounding flights. Many insurers offer coverage for customers who can prove they missed their flight due to ‘extraordinary circumstances’, according to Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel. He advises in Which?: ‘Evidence that you arrived at the time advised by the airport or airline could be crucial, so keep your bus ticket or parking stub and any receipts from shops or restaurants inside the terminal.’

Travelers should ‘make a fuss’ if their flight is about to depart and they’re running late due to delays in processing, for example, by asking staff to expedite them through the queue. Airport staff are accustomed to this and will often prioritize you through security or check-in if they see your ticket indicates a tight timeframe. If staff are hard to find, airlines typically provide online updates, but if that fails, you can use your flight number on FlightRadar24 for real-time tracking of your plane.

Mr. Boland adds that if you still can’t reach your flight in time: ‘Buried in the T&Cs of many airlines is a promise to help, and some will let you rebook for free in such instances.’

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