What are extraordinary circumstances?

If you booked a flight which either departs anywhere within Europe or lands anywhere within Europe with a European airline and is cancelled without two weeks’ advance notice or is significantly delayed, you’re covered by the protection of the Denied Boarding Regulation - or EU Regulation 261/2004.

This often means if you’re more than three hours late to your destination, you could be owed compensation.

But only if the reason for the delay or cancellation isn’t deemed an extraordinary circumstance. This is when something out of the ordinary and out of the airline’s control causes the delay or cancellation.

You are not entitled to compensation for a delay or cancellation caused by an extraordinary circumstance.

What you’re entitled to when there’s an extraordinary circumstance

No matter the reason for the delay - whether it’s deemed an extraordinary circumstance or not - if you’re held up for two hours or more, you're always entitled to assistance if you’re flying from the EU or with an EU airline.

When this right to assistance kicks in depends on how far you fly.

When you're entitled to assistance
Type of flightDistanceHow long you have to wait
Short-haul

Up to 1,500km (932 miles)

Flight time is usually about 2 hours or less

2 hours or more
Medium-haul

Between 1,500km - 3,500km (932-2,175 miles)

Flight time is usually between 2 about 4 hours

3 hours or more
Long-haul

More than 3,500km (2,175 miles)

Flight time is usually more than 4 hours

4 hours or more

This assistance is:

  • two free phone calls, faxes or emails
  • free meals and refreshments appropriate to the delay
  • free hotel accommodation and hotel transfers if an overnight stay is required

These rights apply whether you’ve boarded or are waiting at the airport - if you’re delayed by two hours or more, you have the right to assistance.

List of extraordinary circumstances for flight delays

Some examples of situations which might be deemed an extraordinary circumstance are:

  • Drone disruptions
  • Security threats
  • Extreme weather - such as a snowstorm or volcanic ash
  • Political or civil unrest
  • Hidden manufacturing defects in the aircraft
  • Industrial action unrelated to the airline - such as baggage handlers or air traffic control strikes
  • Bird strike
  • Natural disasters
  • An unruly or sick passenger

Will my flight delay and cancellation rights be affected by Brexit?

If the withdrawal agreement is approved by the EU and UK, it's been agreed that consumer rights will remain unchanged until the terms of the future relationship between the UK and the EU are decided. 

In a no-deal Brexit scenario there could be potential disruption to flights, but the government announced in September 2019 flights will continue to run smoothly after the UK leaves the EU, whatever the circumstances.

The Department for Transport has said it will extend the UK's air traffic rights for EU airlines until October 2020, so air services between the UK and the EU can continue to operate as usual, regardless of whether a new Brexit deal is agreed.

If flight disruption resulting from Brexit is regarded as an extraordinary circumstance, you won't be entitled to compensation or a refund on admin fees or accommodation losses, but you should try to get a refund on your ticket.

The government has advised you check with your travel insurer whether you would be covered for flight delays as a result of Brexit disruption.

Read our guide on how Brexit could impact consumer rights for more information.

You can also sign up for Brexit advice updates - Which? cuts through the noise to find the facts. Our practical and impartial consumer advice, rigorously researched and regularly delivered by email, can help you prepare for the UK leaving the EU.

What aren’t extraordinary circumstances?

  • Staff shortages
  • Airline staff strikes
  • Denied boarding because the flight was overbooked
  • Technical problems with the plane identified during routine maintenance
  • If your flight was delayed because a previous flight was affected by bad weather

Is weather an extraordinary circumstance?

If your flight is grounded because of severe weather and can’t take off or land, this is deemed an extraordinary circumstance.

But bad weather must be extreme and out of the ordinary. For example, if a flight is grounded because of a freak snowstorm in the Canary Islands, this would be extraordinary.

Light snow at an airport near the Alps in the middle of winter, is not.

A good way to judge if weather is severe enough to be deemed an extraordinary circumstance is if other flights are taking off. If they are, you should challenge your airline and make a claim for compensation.

It also isn’t an extraordinary circumstance if your flight is delayed because a previous flight was disrupted due to bad weather. Your flight must be directly affected by the bad weather in order for it to be an extraordinary circumstance.

Is fog an extraordinary circumstance?

If fog is bad enough for Air Traffic Control to either ground all flights or limit the number taking off and landing, that would be considered an extraordinary circumstance because that’s out of the airline’s control.

Is a strike an extraordinary circumstance?

It depends on who’s striking as to whether this is deemed an extraordinary circumstance.

If it’s airport staff, for example baggage handlers, airlines don’t have any control of this so while you’re still entitled to assistance, you can’t claim extra compensation for delays.

But if it’s airline staff striking, such as pilots, this is considered to be within the airline’s control because it is negotiating with its staff. So if you’re delayed because of this then you’re entitled to compensation.

Need to know: Ryanair is challenging this. In the summer of 2018 , the airline was hit with its worst-ever strikes as pilots and cabin crews walked out over pay and working conditions. Claims for compensation were rejected by the airline as it said it was an extraordinary circumstance.

The Civil Aviation Authority has begun enforcement action as it thinks disrupted passengers should have been compensated.

Overnight stays when your flight’s delayed due to mass disruption

In scenarios of mass disruption - for example, all flights have been grounded indefinitely because of a drone - your airline might tell you to go home or re-route you because all the hotels nearby are full and there is nowhere for them to put you up.

But if the airline isn’t able to provide the transfers and you have to find your own transfer home or to another airport, the airline has to reimburse you.

But be aware that the cost of the transfer has to be reasonable - so we wouldn’t advise trying to get a limousine home and then charging it back.

What might a reasonable transfer be?

For example, if you take a train to London Gatwick but there’s a drone threat and all flights are cancelled, your airline might to tell you to go home until flights resume.

In this scenario, the following applies:

  • You should be able to claim for your train fare home and for your return train fare to the airport, or to an alternative airport, when flights resume.
  • If, however, the trains have now stopped running and you need to get a £120 taxi home, your airline should still reimburse you. Often, the airline will prefer to organise taxis for you directly, so do try to ask a customer representative for the airline first where possible.
  • You should also be able to claim for petrol money if you drove, or a friend or family member drove you, home and back again. If this led to additional parking charges you should also be able to claim for these.

Can I challenge extraordinary circumstances?

If you don’t agree with your airline that the cause of your delay was an extraordinary circumstance, you should challenge it and make a claim for compensation. Do also ask the airline at the time what the cause of the delay is, in case a different reason is given after the event.

Airlines may stretch the definition of extraordinary circumstances further than they should.

The airline will have to provide clear evidence of the cause of the delay if your claim is rejected.

If you still don’t agree with its decision, do push back in the first instance as airlines sometimes hope that a meritorious claim will go away if rejected. If you still do not get a satisfactory outcome, you can pursue your claim further with an alternative dispute resolution scheme.

How to appeal a decision about extraordinary circumstances

If you have an unresolved complaint about an airline, it is required to inform you about an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) scheme that you can use.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) hold a list of approved providers of ADR schemes and the airlines they cover.

Please note the Civil Aviation Authority can only help you if the flight was cancelled or delayed departing from or arriving in the UK, or was on a UK based airline. If your flight was cancelled or delayed for a journey wholly outside the UK, you will need to complain to the airline regulator in the country the delay occurred in.

Regardless of whether you choose to use a CAA approved ADR scheme, you still have the right to take an airline to the Small Claims Court if you feel it is unfairly refusing your compensation, even if the company is based in Europe.

But it's a good idea to seek legal advice before taking this step given the associated costs.

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