The UK is facing a summer of transport chaos, with more rail strikes expected to take place, planned industrial action at British Airways and dozens of flight cancellations.
Airlines and airports have already seen massive queues at major hubs, including Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester, as a result of staff shortages and an apparent lack of planning by the aviation industry for high post-Covid pandemic demand for foreign holidays.
Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary has warned the situation is only going to continue, with weekend travel in particular set to see the worst disruption.
So, if your flight has been delayed or cancelled, what are your rights - and how can you make a complaint to the different major airlines?
Here’s everything you need to know.
What are my rights for a delayed flight?
In the first instance, you should make sure the contact details you’ve given to your airline or tour operator are up to date.
That way, they can provide you with any last minute updates about flight cancellations so you don’t have to queue or can rebook onto another flight more easily.
If your flight is delayed, you may be entitled to help from your airline if it is an EU or UK-based carrier.
This is certainly the case if the flight is delayed by strike action - although the industrial action has to be by the airline’s own employees for you to qualfy for a refund.
Strikes by airport staff, such as air traffic controllers or baggage handlers, is considered to be beyond the airline’s control and they are therefore not obliged to give you your money back.
However, if the strike action ends and there are still delays the following day because of it, the airline will have to cough up.
The length of the flight you’re meant to be on determines how long the delay has to be before you receive assistance:
- Less than 1,500km - a delay of 2 hours or over requires compensation
- Between 1,500km and 3,500km - a delay of 3 hours
- More than 3,500km - a delay of 4 hours
You can see how far your flight is meant to travel on the WebFlyer website.
According to Citizens Advice, if you hit the length of delay for the type of flight you’re on, you should get:
- food and drink
- access to phone calls and emails
- accommodation if you’re delayed overnight - and transfers between the airport and the hotel you’re put up in
The airline will deal with you directly at the airport and may give you vouchers to get some of these things for yourself.
If they don’t give you any of the required help, Citizens Advice says you should keep hold of any receipts to claim at a later date any expenses you incurred.
These expenses are only likely to be fully compensated if they are deemed to be reasonable, so you’re unlikely to receive money back for a luxury hotel.
If the flight arrives more than three hours late and it was the airline’s fault - for example, a technical fault, or they overbooked the flight - you could get compensation under EU regulation 261.
This law, which was copied into UK laws post-Brexit, sets out specific levels of compensation, again depending on how long your flight is.
- A 3 hour-plus delay for a flight going less than 1,500km - £220
- A delay of more than 3 hours for a flight between 1,500km and 3,500km - £350
- 4 hours or more for a trip of more than 3,500km - £520
You have to contact the airline to claim this compensation (more on this below).
Bear in mind that if the delay was as a result of something outside of the airline’s control - e.g. bad weather - they don’t have to compensate you.
A delay of five hours or more means the airline legally has to give you:
- a full refund for the flight
- a full refund for other flights from the airline that you won’t use in the same booking, eg a connecting flight or a return flight
- if you’re part-way through a journey, a flight back to the airport you originally departed from
You have to inform the airline as soon as you can if you won’t be accepting the free flight.
The refunded money should take no more than a week to reach you.
If you do decide to take the flight, you can claim up to £520 in compensation if the delay was the airline’s fault.
What if the delay was at the airport?
Rather than enduring flight delays, many of the queues currently being seen in UK airports are as a result of staff shortages and IT issues - sometimes both simultaneously.
These have led to delays going through security and passport control - issues that are under the remit of the airport and not the airline.
According to consumer website Which?, if you miss your flight because of airport queues, it’s unlikely you’ll receive compensation or a refund.
This is because most UK airports do not have policies covering such eventualities.
Which? points out that you could claim frustrated contract and argue the airport is at fault for you missing your flight – but this would be likely to result in you having to take the airline to court.
The check-in desk and bag drop are the airline’s responsibility, so you can claim from them in the event of long queues resulting in you missing your flight - as long as you arrived at the airport when you were told to.
But once again, the claim process is not as simple as it is with the actual flights themselves.
You may have to claim against the consumer rights act, which could also involve a court date.
The best thing to do if you’re stuck in a queue and time is running out for you to make your flight is to tell airport staff.
They may be able to scoot you through queues to give you a chance of catching your flight.
Some airlines might put you on their next flight to that destination free of charge.
What are my rights for a cancelled flight?
If your flight is cancelled outright, you have a legal right under the Denied Boarding Regulations to either:
- a full refund - including other flights from the airline that you won’t use in the same booking, such as return flights
- a replacement flight to get you to your destination (the airline must book you on a route that’s as close to your original journey timings as possible)
- if you’re part-way through a journey and you don’t want a replacement flight, you also have a right to a flight back to the airport you flew out of.
For refunds or replacement flights, it’s best to ask for them at the airport - if you can.
If that’s not possible, you can claim them from the airline later.
You also have a legal right to:
- help with costs - if the cancellation delays you by two-plus hours
- compensation - if you’d be delayed two or more hours by the replacement flight offered and you were given under two weeks’ notice by the airline
Again, compensation depends on how long your original flight was meant to be and how much of a delay you endure as a result of the cancellation.
It also hinges on how far in advance the flight was cancelled.
For a full breakdown of what compensation you might be due, visit the Citizens Advice website.
Be aware that the airline doesn’t have to compensate you if what are called “extraordinary circumstances” are at play.
This term covers things that aren’t under the airline’s control - like extreme weather (but it’s up to the airline to prove it).
Again, cancellations caused by strike action can be compensated, so long as the airline didn’t give you two weeks’ warning of the cancellation and the industrial action was by the airline’s staff.
How can I claim compensation from airlines?
As we’ve discussed, you have to contact the airline to be in with a chance of getting any compensation if your flight is cancelled or delayed.
You have to approach the airline operating the flight, even if you booked it through a different operator.
You’ll need to give the airline’s customer services department details, such as:
- your flight details
- booking reference numbers.
Be sure to keep a record of who you spoke to and what they told you.
If writing to the airline, you’ll have to provide these details, copies of your tickets, any receipts, as well as a description of what went wrong, plus how much you feel you should be compensated.
If the airline is pushing back on your right to compensation or a particular amount of compensation, you can make a Section 75 claim to your card provider (if you spent over £100 on tickets).
This will see your card provider take up the dispute with the airline on your behalf.
You can also complain to an independent organisation like the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) body (if the airline’s a member of one).
If the airline’s not a member of an ADR, you should report your problem to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)’s Passenger Advice and Complaints Team (PACT).
Here are the numbers and links for how to get in touch with the UK’s biggest airlines:
British Airways: 0344 493 0787 or visit the ‘manage my booking’ section of the BA website
EasyJet: 0330 551 5151 or visit the EasyJet Disruption Help Hub
Ryanair: you have to log into your ticket portal to get a number or visit the Submit a Claim section of the Ryanair website
TUI: 0203 451 2688 or visit TUI’s dedicated webpage
Jet2: 0333 300 0042 or visit the Jet2 compensation page
You can also contact contact Citizens Advice’s consumer helpline on: 0808 223 1133