Seeking out compensation for delayed and cancelled flights can be very confusing. It’s difficult to know what you might be entitled do in the event that you’re stuck waiting hours for your flight to depart and it can be even more difficult to work things out with the airlines.
In this article, I’ll walk you through the different types of compensation you might be entitled to when flying on US carriers like American, Delta, and United. I’ll break down some of the requirements that these airlines have for offering you things like hotel stays, ground transportation, and meals, and explain when you might be entitled to those things.
I also have a helpful infographic at the end of the article that you might want to use for quick reference on flight delay compensation!
Does the US require flight delay compensation?
The United States government does not require airlines to provide you with compensation in the event of a delay.
The U.S. Department of Transportation states:
There are no federal laws requiring airlines to provide passengers with money or other compensation when their flights are delayed. Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers.
While federal US laws do not require compensation, that doesn’t mean that you can’t get it. Below, I’ll walk you through some scenarios where you can expect to get compensation.
Later on in the article, I’ll also discuss the EU regulation, EC/261 which applies to the US carriers for certain flights and can entitle you to a lot of compensation.
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Flight delay notifications
Airlines should notify you of the updated status of your flight within 30 minutes of being made aware of flight status changes. I recommend using an app or website like FlightAware to track your flights in case the airlines are slacking on keeping you updated.
When you make your reservation, you should have to input your phone number/email so the airlines should be able to reach you. Also, most airlines have apps where you can sign up for flight status notifications.
Cancelled flight compensation
If your flight is cancelled, you can choose to claim a refund or have your flight re-booked.
The U.S. Department of Transportation states that you “are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation – even for non-refundable tickets.” You are also “entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment.”
Award miles should also be refunded but note that United states that ticketing fees such as those for making a reservation in person are not refundable.
You might be offered flight vouchers in the event your flight is cancelled and if that occurs then make sure that you inquire about all of the restrictions attached to those vouchers, such as black out dates, seat limits, expiration dates.
Some airlines like United may automatically re-book you on to another flight. If the flight doesn’t work for you, you can often go online and reschedule the flight for another one within a 24 hour window.
If there is nothing available with your airline you originally booked with, you might be able to get the airline to book you with another airline as a courtesy (this is known as interlining), though not all of the airlines agree to do this.
Getting the airline to re-book you with another airline can save you lots of money because it will prevent you from purchasing a last-minute fare which could be very pricey. Sometimes you will really have to push an airline to get them to follow through with interlining.
If your flight is cancelled or even delayed, you should inquire about getting put on the stand-by list for other flights. Typically, passengers may be notified that they can fly about 15 minutes prior to departure and if you’re passed up for one stand-by list then the airline might be able to automatically add you to another list.
What about if a delay forces you to miss a connecting flight or causes you to get stranded at the airport? If that happens then you might be entitled to compensation but it depends on the nature of the delay and the timing.
Generally, if the reason for the cancellation/delay was “force majeure,” the airline will not view itself as responsible and you likely won’t be entitled to any relief.
For example, Delta defines force majeure as
- (1) Weather conditions or acts of God;
- (2) Riots, civil unrest, embargoes, war, hostilities, or unsettled international conditions;
- (3) Strikes, work stoppages, slowdowns, lockout, or any other labor-related dispute;
- (4) Government regulation, demand, directive or requirement;
- (5) Shortages of labor, fuel, or facilities; or
- (6) Any other condition beyond Delta’s control or any fact not reasonably foreseen by Delta.
The classic example is bad weather. When that occurs you are generally on your own and the airlines expect that you will take potential disruptions caused by weather into consideration when making your booking.
Some airlines might be able to offer you a discounted hotel rate at certain hotels but if the bad weather is widespread, that might not be possible due to limited availability.
Refunds for delays
If the delay is substantial, you can request a refund. For example, United states:
If you decide to no longer travel either because your original flight was canceled or you are delayed two hours or more, you can receive a refund to your original form of payment.
Update: United has updated its terms so that you may only receive a refund if you are delayed 25 hours or more. This is a huge negative change!
Sometimes the delay might result in a trip “in vain.”
For example, if you were to miss a wedding or meeting because of an unexpected weather delay that would be considered a trip in vain since the trip is no longer needed. The standard rules published by the airlines for delays and cancellations typically apply in these scenarios but you might be able to still request a refund or voucher by explaining your situation.
Failure within airline’s control
If the cancellation is caused by something that the airline can control like some type of mechanical failure then that is on the airlines. In that case, you might be entitled to compensation but the type of compensation will depend on how long the delay goes on for and when it occurs.
For example, an airline might state that your travel must be interrupted for more than four hours during certain times of the night to get certain types of compensation, such as a free hotel stay. If your delay does not meet that threshold you can still complain to the airline and request some type of compensation like vouchers or frequent flyer miles.
If the delay is only a couple of hours don’t expect much but if it’s longer than that, you might be able to more easily convince them to offer you something. If you have status and/or are flying first or business class your odds for compensation will likely go up.
If your delay does meet the policy threshold then you can be entitled to different forms of compensation for your delay. The policy threshold requirements will vary between airlines but a 4+ hour delay during the night (after 10pm) seems to suffice.
Here are some specific examples of the requirements.
However, when a passenger’s travel is interrupted for more than 4 hours after the scheduled departure time as a result of flight cancellation or delay on the date of travel other than from force majeure, Delta will provide the passenger with […] amenities during the delay:
UA will provide at its option either one night’s lodging, or, if no lodging is provided and upon the passenger’s request only, reimbursement for one night’s lodging in the form of an electronic travel certificate… [when] the Passenger incurs a delay that is expected to exceed four hours between the hours of 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. local time.
If the delay is our fault or you’re diverted to another city, and we don’t board before 11:59 p.m. local time on your scheduled arrival day, we’ll arrange an overnight stay or cover the cost of an approved hotel, if available.
What compensation will the airlines provide?
Below are the most common types of compensation offered by airlines.
You need to be very cautious about turning down whatever options are offered to you by an airline. For example, if you’d rather stay at a different hotel or take a different mode of transportation than what is offered to you, there’s a good chance you’ll have to come out of pocket for it.
If you meet the delay requirements you can expect to receive a hotel stay but usually only at hotels that the airline contracts with.
For example, Delta will provide the passenger with a voucher for one night’s lodging at a “contracted hotel” when the four hour delay is during the period of 10:00 pm to 6:00 am and they will also provide free public ground transportation to the hotel if the hotel does not offer such service.
But note that if those hotels are not available, your reimbursement may come in the form of a travel voucher.
For example, Delta states:
If accommodations are not available, Delta will provide the passenger with a voucher that may be applied to future travel on Delta equal in value to the contracted hotel rate, up to $100 USD.
But United explicitly states that they may provide you with reimbursement for overnight accommodations booked on your own.
If we’re unable to book a hotel room for you, we may be able to provide you with reimbursement of overnight accommodations you obtain on your own, including your hotel, ground transportation and meals.
Be very careful about seeking out your own lodging when lodging is offered since airlines like United may not provide compensation for that.
Where lodging has been offered but not accepted by a Passenger for whatever reason, UA is not liable to reimburse the Passenger for expenses relating to alternative lodging secured independently by the Passenger.
Also, if you are at your home (domicile), the airline will not provide you with a hotel and will expect you to simply go back home for the night.
If your flight is diverted to another airport, some airlines will furnish ground transportation to the destination airport. But again, you want to make sure that your delay meets that threshold before you go paying for an expensive taxi ride to another airport in the region.
You can also get your meals covered or reimbursed.
Here’s what United states:
If your flight is canceled because of a mechanical issue or other circumstances within our control, we will try to accommodate you in a nearby hotel at our expense. If we’re unable to book a hotel room for you, we may be able to provide you with reimbursement of overnight accommodations you obtain on your own, including your hotel, ground transportation and meals.
Some may also provide amenities necessary to “maintain the safety and/or welfare of customers with special needs such as unaccompanied children and customers with disabilities.”
Sometimes when a delay happens you get separated from your luggage, especially when dealing with missed connections.
When this happens, your luggage might be kept at the airport until you arrive on the next flight but if you’re not going to have it for an overnight stay, the airline may provide you with a toiletry kit.
There aren’t many things worse than getting stuck on the tarmac for long periods of time.
I was once stuck for two hours on the tarmac and the plane ran out of ice and it was a pretty miserable experience. Luckily, an engineer for the airline happened to be on board and helped resolve the issue and we were able to get out of there but there are horror stories of others getting stuck on the tarmac for much longer than that.
Here are the federal rules for tarmac delays:
- Airlines must offer food, drink, lavatories, and medical care within two hours of a tarmac delay.
- For domestic flights, tarmac delays should be no longer than 3 hours
- For international flights, tarmac delays should be no longer than 4 hours
But there are exceptions which could mean waiting even longer on the tarmac.
These exceptions include things like the pilot-in-command determines there is a safety-related or security-related reason (e.g., weather) or air traffic control advises deplaning passengers would significantly disrupt airport operations.
This means that there’s really nothing that can be done if you’re stuck on the tarmac for less than three hours and that in some cases you can be stuck on there even longer!
EU 261 Delay protection
EU 261 requires compensation of €250 to €600 depending on the flight distance for delays over 2 hours, cancellations, or being denied boarding from overbooking.
Here’s a breakdown of the compensation you can seek based on the flight distance and amount of the delay.
|Up to 1,500 kms||3 hrs or more||€250|
|1,501kms to 3,500 kms||3 hrs or more||€400|
|Over 3,500 kms|
between two Member States
|3 hrs or more||€400|
|Over 3,500 kms||3 to 4 hours||€300|
|Over 3,500 kms||4 hours or more||€600|
EU 261 applies in the following instances:
|Departing From||Arriving||EU 26 applies?|
|Airport based in EU||Airport inside EU||Yes|
|Airport based in EU||Airport outside EU||Yes|
|Airport based outside EU||Airport inside EU||Yes but only if on an EU based airline|
|Airport based outside EU||Airport outside EU||No|
This means that if you are flying on American carriers, such as United, Delta, and American and traveling from an EU country to the US, then this regulation will apply. However, if you are traveling from the US to a European Union destination on an American carrier then this regulation does not apply.
Compensation will be offered so long as the airlines cannot prove “extraordinary circumstance.”
Here are some situations that would involve extraordinary circumstances:
- Acts of terrorism or sabotage
- Security risks
- Extreme weather conditions
- Political or civil unrest
- Hidden manufacturing defects
- Industrial action (strikes unrelated to the airline such as baggage handlers)
And here are some situations that would not involve the extraordinary circumstances:
- Issues with airline staff (crew showing up late)
- Bad weather affecting a previous flight, causing your flight to be delayed
- Denied boarding due to overbooked flight
- Technical/mechanical problems with the aircraft
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How to seek compensation
In many cases, it makes sense to approach the gate agents, customer service desk, or to simply call in to try to resolve your issues. If you’re in a lounge, you can often check with the agents working the help desk in the lounge.
As mentioned, trying to resolve things via social media can also be a solid route. If you’re really pressed for time, I’d advise doing all of them simultaneously (calling in, waiting in line, and maybe even hitting up the airline on social media).
Be sure to keep all of your receipts and try to do some research on the contract of carriage or applicable laws so that you have a basis for stating what you are entitled to.
Complaint with the airline
If you’re not able to resolve your issues then you can file a complaint with the airline. There are usually forms you can submit your complaint through but you can also send a letter to corporate headquarters. Obviously, if you need things to happen in real time, calling in and speaking to agents is the way to go.
DOT requires airlines to acknowledge consumer complaints within 30 days of receiving them and to send consumers written responses addressing these complaints within 60 days of receiving them.
Complaint with the DOT
If you’re unable to resolve anything through that process then you might want to look into filing a complaint with the DOT.
As you can tell, there’s little guarantee that you’ll be able to get reimbursement for a lot of delays and so you want to have a back up plan. Not only for dealing with lodging and meals for unexpected delays, but also for those non-refundable travel purchases.
If an unexpected storm arrives and you can’t make your flight and you end up losing out on pre-paid travel expenses like hotel stays or even a cruise, the airlines aren’t going to offer you anything in the majority of cases.
However, if you have a great travel rewards card that has strong protections like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, then you’ll be able to cover your losses in many cases.
Here are a few protections offered by the Chase Sapphire Reserve:
If your trip is canceled or cut short by covered situations, you can be reimbursed up to $10,000 per trip for your pre-paid, non-refundable travel expenses.
Trip Delay Reimbursement
This perk will have you covered if you are delayed more than 6 hours for expenses, such as meals and lodging, up to $500 per ticket.
Baggage Delay Reimbursement
With this protection, If you are delayed more than 6 hours, you are covered for essential expenses, such as toiletries and clothes for up to one hundred ($100.00) dollars per day for a maximum of five (5) days.
Read more about these benefits here.
It’s really helpful to be versed in what types of compensation you can be offered from the major US carriers before anything happens. It’s unfortunate that there is no mandatory compensation required for many delays but there are at least some routes available to help you when things get very bad.
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Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.