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Air traffic control chaos: what legal rights do passengers have?

Airlines are required to pay compensation if flights arrive more than three hours late, but only when it is their fault (PA Wire)
Airlines are required to pay compensation if flights arrive more than three hours late, but only when it is their fault (PA Wire)

Thousands of passengers have been hit by delays and cancellations caused by air traffic control technical problems.

Under UK law, those affected have legal rights which oblige the airlines to provide support to customers flying from a UK airport, arriving in the country on an EU or UK airline, or arriving at an EU airport on a UK airline.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) website says that in the case of a “significant delay”, the airline must provide a reasonable amount of food and drink, commonly in the form of vouchers, refunds for the cost of calls, and accommodation for passengers stuck overnight and transport to a hotel or their home.

A significant delay is defined as more than two hours for a short-haul flight of under 1,500km, more than three hours for a medium-haul flight of up to 3,500km, and more than four hours for long-haul flights.

The CAA accepts airlines are sometimes unable to organise such support, so passengers should make their own “reasonable” arrangements and keep receipts to claim money back, but the authority adds that “luxury hotels and alcohol” are unlikely to be paid for.

Airlines are required to pay compensation if flights arrive more than three hours late, but only when it is their fault, meaning the air traffic control problems could fall under the definition of “exceptional circumstances”, so the carriers are exempt from paying out.

The CAA says airlines should inform customers when they will be able to fly and advises passengers to also be in contact with airport staff and the airline’s website.

If you still want to travel then your airline must get you to your destination. You might have to be patient while they rearrange transport and rebook passengers, but the law says they must get you there

CAA

It adds: “If you have been delayed for more than five hours and no longer wish to travel then you are entitled to a refund.

“If you are a transfer passenger and missed your connection flight because your first flight was delayed, you are also entitled to a flight back to your original departure point.”

The authority explains that once a passenger accepts a refund or to travel later than the first available flight, then the airline is not obliged to provide food, drink or accommodation.

It says: “If you are on a package holiday and you decide not to travel on your outbound flight, you may lose your holiday too, we recommend you contact your package organiser or the airline for further information.

“If you still want to travel then your airline must get you to your destination. You might have to be patient while they rearrange transport and rebook passengers, but the law says they must get you there.”

What are airline passengers’ rights?

European air passengers’ rights rules apply to flights from the UK and EU airports (as well as those in the wider EEA)

This is the ruling as stated in full: “Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 February 2004 establishing common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding and of cancellation or long delay of flights.”

​​It is intended for passengers who suffer delayed or cancelled flights, overbooking or denied boarding.

Passengers can claim for compensation of between €250 and €600 per person, depending on the circumstances. It also provides assistance and access to basic services in the event of flights cancelled or delayed for several hours, as well as the right to request a seat on another flight or to withdraw from the scheduled flight if it is cancelled or delayed by more than 5 hours.

How do I take legal action against a UK airline?

Before resorting to legal action against a UK airline, make sure you have explored all the options available.

It is advised to call and write to your airline, but make sure you have escalated the issue to the highest level.

You can then log your claim with the Civil Aviation Authority’s Passenger Advice and Complaints Team (PACT) team.

If you’re still not satisfied, GOV.UK has advice on how to make a court claim for money.

Does the Consumer Rights Act apply to airlines?

Air Travel is unfortunately not covered by the Consumer Rights Act 2015.