Under harsh fluorescent lighting and while perched on a cold airport floor, we waited and waited to hear if we would take off from Madrid for Atlanta. Delay after delay came and went and after 6 hours of sitting, the gate agent’s voice finally reverberated over the intercom with the words, “The flight has been canceled.” After decades of travel, I had never heard those words over the intercom. I had never really pondered what would happen when my flight was canceled, let alone an international flight. Would our ticket be refunded? Would the airline put us up for the night? I quickly learned that with flight cancellations, compensation is not so black and white. If you are faced with that dreaded flight cancellation and you’re not quite sure what you’re entitled to, here are a few steps you can take to sort out the muddied rules of flight cancellations and compensation.
Step 1: Determine the Reason for the Cancellation
Before you go shouting to the airline that you need to be compensated, you have to figure out why the flight was canceled. The reason behind the cancellation will determine if you are in fact entitled to any compensation. There are two schools of thought with flight cancellations: reasons beyond the control of the airline and reasons within the control of the airline. In general, you aren’t entitled to compensation if your flight is canceled due to weather, air traffic delays, riots, civil unrest, war, strikes, and fuel shortages. In my case, I discovered another reason an airline won’t compensate you: a bird strike. A bird had hit the inbound aircraft, creating a problem with a wing of the plane. The airline deems these reasons for flight cancellations as “acts of God” or in essence, beyond the airline’s control. While you will generally be accommodated with ticket change fees waived and rebooking, you won’t receive monetary compensation or even hotel nights in most cases.
If your flight is canceled due to events within the airline’s control, such as a lack of flight crew or required maintenance, you are entitled to compensation and the airline should rebook you on the next flight. If it’s the last flight of the day, you’ll often be given hotel, meal, and transportation vouchers. In my case, while the cancellation was deemed beyond the airline’s control, it did happen to be the last flight of the day. The airline put us up in a hotel and provided meals and transport because there were no other flights we could take that day.
Step 2: Discern The Rules of Compensation Based on Where You Were Leaving From
In the US, no federal law or regulation outlines what rights you have if the airline cancels your flight. If your flight is canceled and you are in the US, you usually won’t be given compensation in addition to hotel, meal, and transportation vouchers if you have to stay overnight for your rebooked flight. However, if you’re flying out of the European Union, you may be entitled to a nice chunk of change. Travelers on flights within the EU, on flights departing from the EU, or flights to the EU on an EU-based airline are entitled to financial compensation if their flight is delayed more than 5 hours and the cancellation was not due to extraordinary circumstances. For those lengthy delays, the carrier must pay you between 350 euros and 600 euros depending on how long your flight is. You may also be entitled to refreshments, meals, and overnight stays depending on the flight distance and length of delay.
In the case of my canceled Madrid to Atlanta flight, I wasn’t entitled to this EU compensation as the flight was canceled due to reasons beyond the control of the airline. At the same time, I was given a hotel, meals, and transportation for the night. The airline also offered $100 spending money for the extra day abroad along with 20,000 award miles. Again, what sort of compensation you will receive won’t just depend on the reason behind the cancellation but also where you are trying to take off from in the end. If your flight is canceled, check with the rules and regulations in place for the country in which you are trying to depart.
Step 3: Figure Out Your Airline’s Policies
Compensation for cancellations does not depend just on the reason for the cancellation and where you are flying from; it also depends on your specific airline’s policies. When you buy a ticket, you enter into an airline’s contract of carriage. Each airline outlines what they will do for consumers in a different manner. While in general if your flight is canceled, you always have a right to a refund, each airline can vary on what compensation rules they have in place. Check with your specific airline’s policies to see what rules they adhere to for flight cancellations.
Step 4: Try Requesting Compensation
When all else fails, just ask. If you aren’t sure if you are entitled to anything from the airline, send them an email or pick up the phone and call. Be straightforward and to the point, outlining your flight number, the length of delay, and if you think you might fall into the compensation rules imposed in the EU. The USDOT Passenger Bill of Rights does outline your rights as a flier. You are entitled to compensation for a few scenarios like lost or delayed luggage, involuntary bumps or tarmac delays of three hours or more. Reference this bill or rights when making your request.
In the case of my flight, at the time of the cancellation, a representative from the airline called me saying they were sending a $100 for my trouble and 10,000 bonus miles. I wrote the airline asking if I was entitled to the EU compensation and while they responded that I was not entitled to this money, they did send along another 10,000 bonus miles as a goodwill gesture. Again, it never hurts to ask the airline. You’ll just need to stay even-keeled, resist getting rash or emotional, and exercise patience. I didn’t receive a response for a while but in the end, I felt as though I was amply compensated for a cancellation beyond the airline’s control. Often times airlines won’t do anything about compensating you if you don’t ask for compensation, especially in the case of the EU flight cancellation compensation. By merely requesting compensation, you never know what you might get in return for your troubles.
The rules of compensation for flight cancellations are murky to be sure. By going through each of these steps, you should gain some clarity on what you are entitled to when you hear those dreaded words, “The flight has been canceled.”
Have you ever experienced a canceled flight? Were you compensated? Share your experience with us in the comments below.