Experiencing flight delays or cancellations is not an uncommon scenario. While there are no precautions that air passengers can take to avoid these situations, they can acquire information about their legal rights, especially the compensation and assistance they are entitled to claim from the responsible airline. 

Frequent fliers will agree that delayed flights are a very common practice. Most delays are usually short in time and even though inconvenient for air passengers they are legally acceptable. Airlines’ legal obligations apply when a flight is delayed for more than two hours.

In such situations, depending on the length of the delay, airlines are obliged to provide passengers with free meals and refreshments. If the wait for the flight includes an overnight because the booked flight is postponed to the following day, then the airline is also obliged to provide passengers with hotel accommodation and transport between the airport and the place of accommodation.

When a flight is delayed for longer than five hours, air passengers have the possibility to cancel the booked flight and, where applicable, be flown back to the first point of departure. Air passengers who opt to cancel their booked flight must be fully reimbursed the price paid for the flight within seven days.

In cases of delays that exceed five hours, air passengers must also be offered rerouting, under comparable transport conditions, to their final destination at the earliest opportunity or rerouting at a later date and subject to availability.

Financial compensation also applies when due to a delay, air passengers arrive at their destination three hours after the originally scheduled arrival time. This financial compensation does not apply when air passengers are offered rerouting that allows them to reach their destination less than two hours after the scheduled time of arrival.

Delays caused by extraordinary circumstances that could not be avoided by the airline are also exempt from financial compensation. However, in cases of extraordinary circumstances, the airline is still obliged to provide passengers with care and assistance including food, drinks and accommodation where appropriate.

When the airline fails to do so, air passengers can organise their own refreshments and accommodation and then claim for a refund of the expenses incurred from the airline. It is, however, important that costs are kept to a minimum and relevant receipts are presented.

Basically, the same rights and obligations apply when flights are cancelled. Air passengers must first be offered a choice between a full refund and an alternative flight. They are also entitled to monetary compensation that varies between €250 and €600, depending on the length of the flight.

The distance is calculated from the first point air passengers are denied boarding and their final destination. However, as with delayed flights, airlines are not obliged to pay compensation if they can prove that cancellation was due to extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided, even if all reasonable measures were taken.

Air passengers are also not entitled to claim financial compensation if the airline informed them about the cancelled flight at least 14 days before the date of departure. Airlines are also not obliged to pay compensation when they inform passengers about the cancelled flight between seven and 14 days prior to the date of departure and offer them an alternative flight which departs not later than two hours before the original departure time and arrives at the final destination less than four hours after the original arrival time.

Air passengers who experience delays and cancellations and do not receive from the airline the compensation they are entitled to must make an official claim with the concerned airline. If the airline rejects the claim for compensation, passengers should contact the national enforcement body in the country where the incident takes place.

When a flight is delayed or cancelled in Malta or outside the EU on a flight to Malta on an EU-licensed airline, passengers may lodge their complaint with the Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority on airpassengerrights.mccaa@mccaa.org.mt.

Odette Vella is director, Information and Research Directorate, Office for Consumer Affairs, Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority.



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