Cancelled Flights Plane Transportation

How to claim compensation for cancelled flights (Part 1: Rules)

The easy step-by-step guide to help you master the relevant regulations, including those related to Coronavirus (COVID-19 Pandemic)

Photo: Iguazú Waterfalls, Iguazú, Misiones (Argentina); and Foz do Iguaçu, Paraná (Brasil) ©

Flight Problems?

It happens to every frequent traveler sooner or later: You get an email before your trip with subjects such as: “Your flight is cancelled”, “Important. Your flight has been cancelled”, “Important information for your next flight”, “Important information about your XXX flight to OOO on ZZ/ZZ/ZZZZ”, “XXX information about Flight ZZZ”, or what is even worse, you are at the airport waiting to board and you hear the voice from the loudspeaker:  “Attention all the passengers for flight OOO from YYY to XXX, I’m very sorry to inform that it has been cancelled…”, or the worst in my experience, you are flying and the flight attendant announces: “you attention please, I am sorry to inform that due to XXX we are forced to return to the airport of Departure”.

I always get a little nervous when getting any of those messages (believe me that I’ve got them all), but in that situation it’s very important to keep calm and know your rights (and to re-read my posts!), because you are entitled to a re-routing or refund, and often also to a compensation.

Photo: Les Eclaireurs, End of the World Lighthouse, Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego (Patagonia, Argentina) ©

As I told you, it happened to me as well many times (I got flights cancelled to Rio de Janeiro, Chicago, Mexico D.F., Usuhaia, Buenos Aires, London, etc.), and I was always offered or directly given a new flight (more or less similar to the one in the original booking, basically same itinerary but later), which I sometimes accepted and other times refused.

When a flight is cancelled in advance (and you get the e-mails I’ve mentioned), I learnt that it doesn’t matter which tickets you have; if you are re-routed, you can always ask for a change free of charge if the new flight assigned by the airline doesn’t fit you. So just call the airline (even if you exchanged miles or points and got the tickets for free), and let them know how inconvenient the new flight is for you (be insistent, and ask to talk to a supervisor if necessary).

Photo: Praia Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro (Brasil) ©

I also got a flight cancelled while being on board and before departing (to Salta). Then there was a very big storm (with hail included), which delayed the taking off (extraordinary circumstances!); when the storm stopped, and we were supposed to leave… a new delay… and later we were informed that an ice stone had hitten a turbine and then the aircraft got out of service… Unbelievable!!!!. All passengers had to leave the plane, and after waiting hours in the boarding area to get a new flight, we were finally sent to the check-in area to do the new bookings ourselves (time to run!). Once there, we could find room for the next morning, but lost a hotel night in Salta and had to pay taxis from and to the airport… 

Photo: Iruya, Salta (Argentina) ©

Next “believe it or not” event, my flight was cancelled on the air. I was flying to Misiones province to attend an important event, several other guests were also on the same flight (all very excited about the weekend ahead), and about in the middle of the journey we heard the voice from the loud speaker saying something like: “We are sorry to inform that due to an emergency at the arrival airport we are obliged to go back to the point of departure” (no further information then, later we got to know about a small accident in the arrival airport, suffered by a private jet). Back to the departure airport, we were sent to the check-in area (after some time) to book a new flight (again time to run!!!); none of the guests could get a later flight, and we lost payed hotel reservations, and the event… All were given new open tickets for the same itinerary; but since they were not longer useful for me I didn’t want them, after a “big fight” with the airline on the phone and several e-mails, I got a full refund or reimbursement.

Photo: San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato (Mexico) ©

Other very unusual cancellation: flight cancelled beacuse the airline decided to abandon the route (Mexico D.F.- Buenos Aires), I was re-routed to an airport located in another country (Miami, U.S.A.) After the inicial surprise, I took it easy. Since I had a valid Visa to go to the new point of departure, I made a slight adjustement in my itinerary, bought a new affordable ticket, and spent a couple of days there with local friends, no regrets (sometimes to adapt to the new scenario is the best option)…

Photo: Key West, Florida Keys, Florida (U.S.A.) ©

Last unusual cancellation of flights due to Corona Pandemic, an extraordinary circumstance (my flights to Santiago de Chile, Calama, Barcelona, and Buenos Aires were cancelled). At the beginning I got not much information, later I got vouchers (some are useful and others not), I complained and I will keep complaining if necessary (process is still going)…

I just want you to know that you are not obliged to accept a voucher, and if your flight is departing, flying within or landing in Europe, you can claim a reimbursement or re-routing (if possible), and you may be entitled to claim a compensation. I’ll guide you through the whole process so you can do it yourself. The first step is to know the regulations and what rights you have.

The Rules

There are a many regulations protecting passenger rights, but for people traveling from/to/in Europe, the most relevant is the following:

  • Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 Common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding and of cancellation or long delay of flights, link here.

The Interpretative Guidelines on Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 are also very important, they establish common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding and of cancellation or long delay of flights, and on air carrier liability in the event of accidents, link here.

During Coronavirus Pandemic COVID-19, the European Comission adopted interpretative guidelines and a recommendation, and published an advisory guidance, as follows:

  • Interpretative Guidelines on EU passenger rights regulations in the context of the developing situation with Covid-19 2020/C 89 I/01 (18/3/2020), to clarify the application of certain provisions, link here.
  • Information on the Package Travel Directive in Connection with the COVID-19 (19.3.2020), it is an advisory guidance on UE package travel travel rules, link here.
  • Commision Recommendation (EU) 2020/648 (14/5/2020), refers to vouchers offered to passengers and travellers as an alternative to reimbursement for cancelled package travel and transport services in the context of the pandemic, link here.

Check 1. Does it apply to you?

You need to meet one requirement from each category: A, B and C.

A. You shall be a Passenger traveling:

  • on a scheduled flight, or
  • on a non-scheduled flight, including those forming part of package tours (except if the package tour is cancelled for reasons other than the flight being cancelled).

B. Your flight shall:

  • depart from an airport located in a EC Member State; or
  • arrive to an airport situated in a EC Member State, from an airport located in a third country, and if the operating airline is a Community carrier (unless the passenger received benefits or compensation and were given assistance in that third country).

C. You shall face one of these events:

  • denied boarding against your will;
  • flight cancelled; or
  • flight delayed.

Let’s now look at the second most common problem: cancelled flights. I will explain denied boarding against your will in future blog posts. If you need to know about delayed flights, please check “How to claim compensation for delayed flights (Part 2: Process)”, link here.

Check 2. What are your rights in case of a cancelled flight?

If you meet the requirements from Check 1 (A+B+C), then you need to know which are your rights, in order to get what you’re entitled to.

If your flight is cancelled you have the right to reimbursement, to be offered a possible alternative transport or return flight (in case of connecting flights), and maybe the right to assistance and to compensation.

Cancellation occurs when the planning of a flight is abandoned (there is no need of an express decision of the airline), and comprehends the following cases:

  • the original flight schedule is left (passengers are transferred to another scheduled flight),
  • the plane took off but was forced to return to the airport of departure (passengers are transferred to another flight),
  • the flight arrives at an airport which is not the final destination indicated on the ticket, except if:
    • A re-routing was accepted (under comparable transport conditions at the earliest opportunity) to the airport of the original final destination, or to any other agreed destination; because this case is considered a delay (not a cancellation).
    • The airport of arrival and the airport of the original final destination are in the same town, city or region; because this case is also considered a delay (not a cancellation).

Check 3. What exactly can you get?

Now it’s time to check what your rights are (and then how high your compensation might be).

A. Right of Assistance

While you wait, after the cancellation of your flight, the airline shall provide you:

  • meals and refreshments in proportion to the waiting time (sometimes they give you a voucher that you can use at the airport shops and restaurants, which happened to me several times; don’t expect enough for a fancy meal, in that case you will have to pay the difference), and
  • 2 free telephone calls, emails, faxes or telex (the regulation is obviously a bit old, as you can see, do you know what telex is?);

if you have been rebooked to travel the following day, you should also get:

  • hotel accommodation and transportation between the airport and the hotel; airlines should also ensure, that accommodation is accessible for people with disabilities and their companions.

B. Reimbursement and a return flight, or re-routing and return flight

If your flight has been cancelled, you have the right to be offered the choice between reimbursement (plus a return flight), or re-routing:

  • Reimbursement whithin 7 days, for the full cost of the paid ticket:
    • for the part of the journey not made, or
    • for the parts already made and not yet made made (if the trip makes non-sense for you after the cancellation); plus a
  • Return flight to the first point of departure, as soon as possible, if you have a connecting flight; or
  • Re-routing under comparable transport conditions:
    • to your final destination at the earliest opportunity; or
    • to your final destination at a later date at your convenience (subject to availability of seats).

If the airline offers you a new flight to a different airport from the one in the original booking, it shall bear the transportation cost between both airports, or to another close-by destination agreed with you.

If your flight forms part of a package, the right to reimbursement might be ruled by Directive 90/314/EEC on package travel, package holidays and package tours; link here.

C. Compensation

You shall be paid compensation if you have not been informed of the cancellation sufficiently in advance. In other words, you have no right to compensations if you have been informed of the cancellation before the scheduled time of departure, as follows:

  • At least 2 weeks (14 days).
  • Between 2 weeks and 7 days if you are offered re-routing, and the new flight:
    • departs no more than 2 hs. before the original schedule, and
    • arrives to your final destination less than 4 hs. after the original schedule; or
  • Less than 7 days if you are offered re-routing, and the new flight:
    • departs no more than 1 h. before the original schedule, and
    • arrives to your final destination less than 2 hs. after the original schedule.

You have no right to compensation if the airline proves that the cancellation was caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken.

If you choose to have your ticket reimbursed, the compensation will depend on the distance of your flight. If you choose a re-routing, the compensation will depend on the distance of your flight and the delay in reaching your final destination (compared to the original scheduled arrival time). I explained your rights in case of delayed flights in a previous post, “How to claim compensation for delayed flights (Part 1: Rules)”, link here.

Distance of the flightCompensation
1.500 km or less€250
More than 1.500 km (within the EU).
Between 1.500 and 3.500 km (all other flights)
More than 3.500 km€600
If the airline has offered you re-routing and you reach your final destination with a delay of 2, 3 or 4 hours the compensation may be reduced by 50%

In determining the distance, the basis shall be the last destination at which the cancellation will delay the passenger’s arrival after the scheduled time. The distances shall be measured by the great circle route method (is the shortest distance between two points: airport of first departure, and airport of last arrival).

Check 4. When you don’t get a compensation?

I used the words “may”, “maybe” and “should” a lot in the paragraphs above, because there are several reasons which can exempt the airline from paying a compensation.

Extraordinary circumstances for a delay or canceled flight

Extraordinary circumstances, such as air traffic management decisionspolitical instabilityadverse weather conditionssecurity risks, or any strike that affects the operation of the airline may lead to more than one cancellation or delay of arrival at the final destination. These cases exempt the airline from paying a compensation, proven that: a) there is a link between the extraordinary circumstances and the delay or the cancellation, and b) the delay or cancellation could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken.

A world-wide pandemic, such as the Coronavirus, is also an extraordinary event. I will refer to it below.

On the other hand, most technical problems which come to light during aircraft maintenance or are caused by failure to maintain an aircraft, or a collision of the mobile boarding stairs with an aircraft are not considered extraordinary circumstances.


At the time of writing this post, since there is so much going on in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak I decided to include a summary of the regulations, to clarify your rights:

  • You have the right to choose between a reimbursement of the ticket price or a re-routing, at the earliest opportunity or at a later stage “at your convenience”.
  • You have the right to accept or not a voucher, you can instead opt for a cash reimbursement. Reimbursement through a voucher is only possible if you agree.
  • You have the right to assistance or care, only while you have to wait for a re-routing at the earliest convenience (this right ends when you opt for a reimbursement of the full cost of the ticket, or for a re-reouting at a later date at your convenience).
  • The condition “extraordinaries circumstances” should be considered fulfilled if :
    • Public authorities either prohibit certain flights or ban the movement of persons in a manner that excludes, de facto, the possibility to operate the flight in question.
    • The flight cancellation occurs in circumstances where the corresponding movement of persons is not entirely prohibited, but limited to persons benefitting from derogations (for example nationals or residents of the state concerned).
    • No such person would take a given flight, then the latter would remain empty if not cancelled. In such situations, it may be legitimate for a carrier not to wait until very late, but to cancel the flight in good time; depending on the circumstances, a cancellation may still be viewed as “caused” by the measures taken by the public authorities.
    • Flights operated in the direction opposite to the flights directly concerned by the ban on the movement of persons; depending on the circumstances, such cancellation may also still be viewed as “caused” by the measures taken by the public authorities.
    • The airline decides to cancel a flight and shows that this decision was justified on grounds of protecting the health of the crew, such cancellation should also be considered as “caused” by extraordinary circumstances.
  • You should be informed about delays and/or uncertainties linked to you choosing re-routing instead of reimbursement.
  • Rights related to Package tours:
    • The organiser of a package can cancel the trip without penalty if he is prevented from performing the contract because of “unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances”; in that case is obliged to inform you immediately.
    • You can cancel the package travel contract because of the above mentioned “extraordinary circumstances”, and you have the right to get a full refund of any payments made for the package, within 14 days after termination of the contract.
    • You have the right to choose between vouchers or cash reimbursement for:
      • a cancelled package travel, or
      • changes made to a package travel contract (for example postponement), if the new package is of lower quality or cost, or
      • proposed substitute package, if the new package is of lower quality or cost.

Despite the context of COVID-19, note that the airline must prove that the circumstances are extraordinary, so, in case of any doubt, I would always try to get a compensation (in the worst case scenario, you will just waste some time and get a “no”).

That’s it for now. I hope you liked reading this post and find it useful, specially now with so many flights cancelled because of COVID-19. In my next post, I will explain how to actually claim your rights in case of cancellation, step-by-step. You will see that you can do it by yourself!

If you have any feedback, comment, or question please let me know. I’ll be very happy to hear from you!

Virginia, a traveling lawyer
Link to my Instagram

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