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What did you really lose out on?

When flights are delayed or cancelled, air passengers naturally want to even the score with the airline in the wrong. No one enjoys being inconvenienced or having their time wasted, and in some parts of the world, stringent laws exist to punish airlines for such issues. In the European Union, a simple delayed landing of three hours or more on a long haul flight commands €600 in compensation for each passenger. That’s not vouchers, it’s real money – and in many cases, it’s more than the people paid for their tickets in the first place. And on top of it all, the airline still must transport you! But is it ethical to always claim this money?

30 Rockefeller Plaza skyline at sunsetA Potential Case For No

Traveler A pays $300 round trip for their ticket from London to New York. Their flight is scheduled to get in at 10PM and the passenger has absolutely no plans for the evening other than to rest. They are made aware of the delay before even leaving for the airport, allowing extra time at home or the office before their journey. They don’t sit for hours waiting in an airport, their timetable is simply shifted. Yes, they arrive in New York at 1AM instead of 10PM, but hotels are open 24 hours nowadays anyway. All they lose out on is an extra hour or two of sleep. Is it ethical for them to profit to the tune of $417, while still getting to their destination?

A Potential Case For Yes

Traveler B has an important client meeting in Los Angeles and their flight from Paris is pushed back due to mechanical issues by 3 hours. This delay causes Traveler B to miss out on a crucial piece of business, potentially costing thousands, even millions in damage to their business. The traveler was not made aware in advance, and is forced to sit at the airport for hours on end just waiting for a solid answer. This traveler has been forced to waste time in unsuitable conditions and loses out. That €600 feels like the least the airline can do.

a sunset over a beach with palm trees

Another Potential Case For No

Traveler C used points for a one way flight from Hong Kong to Zurich on a European Airline. Their flight is cancelled, but the original airline issues a new ticket for the passenger, with an upgrade for the next flight, getting them in five hours late. The passenger had no specific business, plans or other things to forgo. The airline has tried to be polite by offering an upgrade worth hundreds at the least. Is it ethical to accept the upgrade, and profit from the flight, knowing you’ve realistically only lost out on hours which had no intended purpose?

Another Potential Case For Yes

Traveler D is flying from Amsterdam to Boston, connecting on to a wedding in Philadelphia. The Amsterdam to Boston flight forces the passenger to miss their connecting flight, which was the last of the day. U.S. airlines do not issue free hotel vouchers in most cases, and the passenger is forced to now spring for their own hotel for the night, dinner and everything else. There’s no guarantee they’ll be compensated. Not only that, they’re going to be late for the wedding now. This seems like a clear cut case where these compensation measures are crucial.

a black board with white text and yellow dotsThe Bigger Picture

I think it’s far better to err on the side of protecting passengers, than abandoning them – which is the case in the United States. Passengers in the U.S. have virtually no protection, rights or compensation guarantees during delays. But if everyone jumps on the gravy train, just because they can, it makes it harder for airlines to invest in new planes, new technology, better seats and all the things which make them competitive in the first place. The more of a relationship you have with an airline, the more this seems like a judgement call. Who wouldn’t want €600 in the pocket? But what’s the real cost? Since many regions don’t require this level of compensation, taking every possible allowed claim could make the airlines of a region less competitive than others, where passengers are entitled to jack.

But Airlines Have Themselves To Blame

Airlines make it so difficult to claim said compensation, that even if you don’t really want it – by the time they put you through the full ringer – you really want it. I can’t help but feel that if the process was more transparent and fair – rather than automatically denying all claims first time – passengers may feel less dug in about sticking it to them. Of course, if it was easy, perhaps everyone would claim and airlines would go bankrupt. There’s a balance, and it’s certainly a tricky one.

What’s your take?

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. As an individual passenger, I wouldn’t consider the “ethics” aspects of the EU compensation law. It’s the law. The Airlines are required to abide by it. If you are eligible for the compensation, you request it. If the airline refuses, you take them to court. Simple as that.

    Frankly, should you let the airline off by not claiming the compensation, you’re doing more harm to other passengers by allowing the airline to offer lower quality service. The more and more that people not claim the compensation, the less likely the airline will take steps to avoid delays.

  2. I always claim flight compensation for delays because it’s time taken away from my life that I will never get back… so it always effects me.

  3. This is my take:
    Most passengers have no idea that EC261 exists. And of the passengers that do know of it, only a small portion bother to file for compensation, especially if they know how the airlines try to deny the claim. But, EC261 works, but you might have to be persistent. Affected passengers have 5 years to file their claim, I think. I’d love to know what percentage of delayed passengers receive compensation – under 10%? under 5%? 261 is an awesome gift to those in the know.

  4. Hi, In your first potential case of “No”, planning for landing at 10pm at NYC from overseas might result in reaching hotel around mid night (after immigration,etc) and after battling time difference, grabbing shut eye for 2 -3 hours before waking up and being in the right frame of mind to undertake business meeting(s) next morning. Rather if you land at 1 am and end up reaching hotel at 3 am, this might result in no sleep or very minimal one before starting next day. I am not talking hypothetical situation but something that happens all the time for travellers when adjusting to diff time zone. Many a time I have faced this situation personally and seen signficant impact on productivity next day. In most cases, this is the life of road warriors who are big segment of travellers and whom airlines look at mainstay for business. In such instances, keeping in mind that the downstream impact is not openly apparent to others does not mean it can be simply brushed off as ethical option of saying No to compensation.

    The most important point to note when even raking up such an ethical question is if the traveler had known about such a landing time of 1 am in this case or final arrival time after delay as general idea, most likely this itinerary would not have been purchased.

    So my counterpoint is that if the airline promised a specific time to land the flight in the itinerary and didn’t do so, they should compensate as it is impossible to bring subjective analysis as one can never know the situation in full that applies to each traveller. In this respect, EU rule is fair.

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