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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Zoe Wood

UK flight disruption: your rights and what you are entitled to

Person sat on floor at airport reading a book.
If you are at the airport when your flight is cancelled, you are entitled to ‘care and assistance’ while you wait for a new flight. Photograph: Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images

Travellers continue to face severe disruption after a UK air traffic control technical failure on the August bank holiday led to cancellations and delays. Although the problem was fixed after several hours, more knock-on delays are expected because aircrews and planes are left out of position.

My flight has been cancelled, what are my rights?

If your flight is cancelled and your airline is UK- or EU-based, it must offer you a replacement at the earliest opportunity, or a refund. If it is your outbound flight that is cancelled, you can get the full cost of the return ticket refunded.

If you are flying in from outside the UK with a non-UK and non-EU carrier – for example, from New York to Glasgow with American Airlines – you need to look at the terms and conditions of your booking to see what help you are entitled to.

Opting for a replacement flight is known as being “rerouted” and most carriers will book you on another one of their flights to the same destination. If, like many unlucky travellers on Monday, you were at the airport when the flight was cancelled, you are also entitled to “care and assistance” while you wait for your new flight.

“Airlines are legally required to transport you to your destination as soon as possible,” says the Which? travel editor, Rory Boland. “That means on other airlines or other routes, if necessary.”

However, he says many airlines often ignore this and only allow you to rebook with them or “partner” airlines. “If other airlines can get you home several hours or days before the rerouting offered by your airline, ask your carrier about rebooking you. If it refuses, book the alternate flight yourself and claim the money back.”

If you are stuck overnight, the airline is also responsible for providing accommodation. Some airlines will book passengers into hotels, but often passengers find there are no staff available to help, especially during major incidents.

If this happens, you have the right to do it yourself and then claim the costs back later. If you do end up doing this, keep every receipt and do not spend more than is reasonable. Airlines are unlikely to refund you for luxury hotel stays or alcohol.

However, be prepared to wait for your cash, as airlines often drag their heels on payouts. And don’t accept a refund from your original airline. Your legal rights are to rerouting or a refund, but not both.

If your flight is just delayed, you have a similar entitlement to help with food and drink, but it is linked to the type of flight. For short-haul, it must be more than two hours, whereas for a long-haul flight the delay must be more than four hours. If the delay exceeds five hours, your airline must offer you the option of a refund.

Can I get the money back for my trip?

If you have put together your own travel itinerary, this is where it gets tricky. If you are unable to fly but have an expensive hotel stay booked, you may not be able to recover that cost. Again, you need to check the conditions of your booking. If you can’t get your money back, it is worth contacting your travel insurer to find out what cover is available under your policy.

If you are going on a package holiday, you have the same rights as any other passenger to rerouting and a refund, but you also have additional rights regarding the rest of your holiday, according to travel industry trade body the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta).

Normally, your travel company will contact you to rearrange your flights; however, if you are at the airport when the flight is cancelled, you should contact it to discuss the options.

If your flight can’t be rearranged or significant changes to your plans are required, then the travel company must offer an alternative holiday or a refund of the full package price – not just the flight part. Generally, a change of more than 12 hours on a 14-night holiday is considered a significant change.

My holiday has been ruined – can I claim compensation?

This always depends on what caused the upset to your travel plans but the general rule here is if it wasn’t the airline’s fault, you won’t be entitled to any compensation. Flight delays or cancellations caused by “extraordinary circumstances” are not eligible for compensation.

Unfortunately, Boland says the disruption yesterday and today will be “classed as extraordinary circumstances, which means no compensation is due”.

However, if your flight several days or a week later is cancelled or delayed and the airline claims it is a result of the air traffic control system failure, you may be due compensation, he suggests.

“The airline may still claim this is an extraordinary circumstance, but if it appears that other carriers are operating as normal to your destination, you should consider lodging a claim for compensation.”

What about claiming on my travel insurance?

What you are entitled to in the event of a flight delay or cancellation will always vary from policy to policy, but ordinarily, travel insurance won’t cover claims for things the airline is legally required to pay for – such as overnight accommodation.

Some policies will have a set amount they pay out, minus any excess, for delays over a certain period or cancellations. You may also have complimentary airport lounge access in your policy.

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