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When are airline passengers in Germany entitled to flight compensation?

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When are airline passengers in Germany entitled to flight compensation?
Passengers at Frankfurt's airport in August 2018. Photo: DPA
10:06 CEST+02:00
Due to strikes, weather and simply misunderstandings, flight passengers in Germany have been left in the lurch lately. What rights do they have to compensation?

On Tuesday Ryanair employees called for a 24-hour strike Wednesday, potentially leaving passengers stranded while they wait on delayed or cancelled flights. A similar strike in August resulted in 400 cancelled flights, affecting around 55,000 passengers. 

The announcement of the show-down followed two budget airline slow-downs this weekend: On Friday, an Easyjet flight made a trip from Berlin Tegel to Berlin Schönefeld after technical problems stopped it from reaching its Swiss destination.

And on Saturday an Eurowings flight made a six hour journey from Cologne to Cologne after it was forced to turn back and land due to bad weather.

What rights do passengers have in the event of flight cancellations or delays?

This has been regulated uniformly in the EU since 2005. If you get stuck longer than three hours because of a delayed or cancelled flight, you are entitled to vouchers for drinks and food during the waiting period. If necessary, you also have a right to an overnight stay in a hotel, as the Eurowings passengers were granted on Saturday.

For a departure flight, passengers are entitled to a flight refund within seven days, and for return flights they are entitled to a rerouted flight back to their destination.

Compensation - what does that mean?

Compensation, however, is not guaranteed 100 percent of the time. Passengers are entitled to financial compensation from the airline if their connection is seriously delayed, overbooked or cancelled at short notice. How much money they receive, however, depends on the length of the trip.

For a flight within Europe of more than 1500 kilometres - say from Hamburg to the Canary Islands - it is €400 per person. For a flight of longer than 1500 kilometres outside of Europe, the compensation can be €600 or more, and for flights less than 1500 the figure stands at €250.

The amount is halved if an emergency pilot takes the passengers to their destination without too much delay.

Why don’t airlines (usually) give their passengers compensation in the case of strikes?

Under EU rules, airlines are not liable for an event that "is due to exceptional circumstances that could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken". As examples, the regulation cites strikes, as well as political instability and adverse weather conditions. However, compensation can vary on a flight by flight basis.

When do “exceptional circumstances” apply in the case of strikes?

In cases brought to the German court of justice (BGH), strikes have been deemed an "extraordinary circumstance" twice. One was cancellations due to a strike call by the pilots' association Cockpit, and the other was delays due to general strikes in Greece, followed by temporary airspace closures.

The BGH, on the other hand, obliged the German TUIfly to make payments after so-called “wildcat strikes”. In protest against airline restructuring measures in October 2016, almost 90 percent of employees called in sick. But the BGH ruled that the "spontaneous absence of a significant part of the flight staff" is not an uncontrollable situation.

When can an airline cancel a flight?

A passenger is less likely to receive financial compensation if a flight’s cancellation is deemed “unavoidable” but this applies only in very specific and rare circumstances - for example, if not a single passenger makes it to the aircraft in time due to delays in checks. The BGH judges will only accept safety concerns if there is an indication of a concrete risk. In all other cases, the airline can still cancel the flight - but it must compensate the passengers.

If you think you’re liable for a compensation from your airline, you can file an official EU airline complaint form.

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