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Let’s not enter a world of complete fantasy. Nothing, no measure, or lack of measure is going to stop flight delays or cancellations from ever happening. Between weather and all things mechanical, sometimes “it” happens.

Some measures can make a difference though, or at least incentivize airlines not to sell flights they know won’t be taking off, knowing they’ll end up cancelling. Too many trips are being ruined right now.

As US airlines melt down and record cancellations sweep the nation, there’s renewed talk of desire for a passenger friendly rule, which could see automatic compensation if an airline significantly messes up a trip, for unreasonable reasons.

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Does The US Need EU Flight Delay Compensation?

In the early days of the global health crisis, when US airlines had their hands out for massive “loans”, a variety of congresspeople and their aides queried people like myself with a “what should we be asking for?” message.

The United States was about to write big checks and some, but not all, US politicians wanted to feel like there was a win for consumers in exchange for the big economic package helping to see airlines through the times.

Airlines are vital and I wasn’t opposed to preserving jobs or operations in any way.

My suggestion was to attach European Union delay compensation rules to the big balloon payments. In the simplest terms, in Europe, if an airline is more than three hours delayed, they still owe you the full trip, but they also owe you actual money.

For a long haul flight delayed 4 hours or more, they owe circa $650 per passenger.

They still gotta’ bring you, but if they mess up big time, it’s worth something on top.

There can even be instances where the money they owe is more than the fare you paid. This also cover flights cancelled within 14 days of departure, where an airline is forced to rebook, refund, or re-route you. And even then, they may still owe you cash for the “last minute” hassle.

European EC261 coverage doesn’t cover “extraordinary” circumstances like weather or freak incidents, but does cover passengers with mechanical delays. Airlines must still do the right thing during those times, but there’s no cash compensation due.


Why It Matters With US Airline Struggles

Do you think airlines would be selling flights they know won’t operate, if they’d be forced to pay cash compensation, in addition to full refunds for each flight cancelled within 14 days of departure?

Make no mistake about it — US airlines are selling tickets on flights they know they will not fly. They’ve started trimming schedules to get a bit more honest about it, but they have, and to some extent will continue to sell flights, knowing they won’t operate.

No mechanism exists in the US which formally requires airlines to refund customers with cash rather than vouchers, when a flight is delayed. It remains an intentionally vague loophole thanks to airline lobbyists which have eroded trust in the Department of Transportation (DOT) to protect consumers.

So yeah, the idea of an airline paying you cash compensation on top of a refund is laughable in the US, for now.

Southwest’s pilot union recently responded to a Southwest tweet asking the airline why they were selling 4,000 flights for a given period when they only had enough pilots for 3,800, if that’s any indication.

This is frustrating to deal with, but it’s made more frustrating by the fact that these airlines are waiting until the last minute to cancel or delay flights, and even then aren’t going above and beyond to help people they inconvenience.

There’s no legal requirement to do much of anything. Unless you have elite frequent flyer status, or a high value ticket, they won’t automatically rebook you onto another airline, and certainly won’t be giving you a wad of cash.

Does EC261 Have Positive Effect?

There’s something very satisfying about knowing that airlines are being held to an accepted standard, and when they fall short, they must compensate for the loss of time.

In a just world, no rules would be needed and airlines would compete to offer the best protections when delays or cancellations exist, as a selling point. In case you need to hear it, we’re not living in a “just” world right now.

To reiterate, airlines are selling products they have no intention of fulfilling in a timely manner. I fully understand the desire to fully maximize revenue after unfairly bearing an outsized brunt during the health crisis, particularly with uncertainty ahead.

In my opinion, there’s no doubt that fewer people would be held up, or stuck overnight this summer if US airlines were held to hard and fast delay and cancellation rules that bear cash penalties.

a statue of liberty with a body of water and trees
Image by AnnaBellaCaramella from Pixabay

There Are Downsides To EC261

A counter to EC261 is that US airlines are exceptionally generous when they oversell flights — which they all do, by the way. They assume some people won’t show, so they might sell 310 tickets on a plane with a maximum capacity of 300.

US airlines have offered up to $10,000 per passenger in these instances, far more than EC261 mandates. The issue is they only seem to be generous when they oversell. The same hasn’t applied to other inconveniences, like delays due to maintenance or crews.

Even in Europe where hard and steady rules exist, every effort is made by airlines to wriggle out of their requirements. They’ll claim it was weather when they didn’t have pilots, or they will rename schedule changes entirely to sound like “enhancements.”

It’s not as if having these rules makes airlines play fairly. It just means when they don’t, there’s at least legal precedents for anyone with the time needed to take them to court over it, to win.

Risks To Routes?

Pessimists would say that having these requirements can make it harder for airlines to launch new routes, or make them more likely to shut down a route, if the profitability plummets due to frequent issues.

That could cut off key communities from flights, so EC261 isn’t all roses. I’d say that’s a pretty straw man argument against EC261, but it exists.

People also try to say that EC261 delay and cancellation rules force airlines to raise prices, but if you look at flight prices within Europe and from Europe compared to the US, that logic doesn’t usually track.

Knowing that penalties kick in for delays over 3 hours, you’d be amazed at how many flights land about 2 hours and 50 minutes late. Somehow, whatever nonsense delayed the fight always seems tor resolve just under 3 hours.

That’s Kind Of The Point

Delays happen regardless of regulation or lack thereof, but having these major fines specifically for delays over 3 hours pushes airlines to work vigorously to resolve issues in an acceptable frame of time, rather than kicking the can.

People may still suffer delays, but they’re generally shorter, and if they’re held overnight, there is a legal requirement for the airline to cover an acceptable hotel, meals and transport. Delayed overnight in the US, there’s no legal requirement for airlines to do any of these things. And in reality, they don’t.

In a just world, it would be wonderful for free market competition to make strong rules for airlines unnecessary, but there hasn’t been a whole lot of news in the last few years or decades; which would make you think these are businesses playing fairly.

If we can’t have EC261 delay compensation, should the Department Of Transportation at least finally define what counts as a “lengthy” delay? I think we’re owed that. At the very least. Right?

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. US airlines received $54 billion in cash from US taxpayers no strings attached. Yes they need to compensate for flight delays. Congress is broken they don’t care about anyone except that heir cronies

  2. A recent Southwest Airline flight in California was delayed several hours, and another similar flight was rebooked for later that day. To our surprise, we got $200 credits for each, which was helpful because we were booking flights the following month, so we applied the credits right away. We had no idea they had introduced this policy.

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