Flight delays and cancellations

Australia lags behind other countries when it comes to compensating consumers for flights delays and cancellations.

Flight times not guaranteed

Missed flight connections and lost holiday time can be costly, not to mention incredibly frustrating. Unfortunately, flight delays and cancellations are a common part of the air travel experience. 

Recent CHOICE research found that around 22.6% of Australians have experienced flight delays or cancellations on international or domestic flights in 2015-16, and more than half of those (53%) were longer than two hours. And according to the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport, and Regional Economics, 94,352 domestic flights (or 16.3%) were delayed by 15 minutes or more and 9622 were cancelled in 2016. Our research also found, that of those people who had experienced a problem with their flight, 6% said it was due to overbooking.

This article will look at:

Flight delayed or cancelled? Don't pay for their delay - lodge an airline complaint using our complane form.

The situation in Australia

In Australia, airlines don't guarantee their timetables. The airline's contract with you is to get you from A to B – as for when that happens, well, that's a bit more fluid. The airline may or may not get you to your destination at the time specified on your ticket and they won't necessarily take responsibility if you fail to make a connecting flight as a result.

As a general rule, if your flight is delayed or cancelled and it was:

  • within the airline's control (such as mechanical issues or crewing issues), most airlines will either carry you on another scheduled service as soon as space is available or give you a refund. It's at the airline's discretion, but some will provide meals, refreshments, accommodation and transfers appropriate to the length of the delay.
  • outside of the airline's control (such as bad weather or volcano ash clouds), airlines will usually try to help you get to your destination, but they won't be responsible for paying any costs or expenses you may incur as a result of the delay or cancellation.

Australia lags behind a number of other countries when it comes to clear guidance on compensation for the downstream costs associated with flight delays and cancellations. The European Union, New Zealand, Indonesia and even the USA (to a degree) all have more specific guidance in place when it comes to rights and compensation.

The European model

Perhaps the most comprehensive and clear-cut consumer protection legislation for flight delays and cancellations is the scheme in place in the European Union (EU).

When are you entitled to compensation?

Passengers departing from any airport situated in the EU, or those flying into an EU airport with an EU-based airline (or one from Iceland, Norway or Switzerland), are eligible for compensation if their flight arrives at the destination more than three hours after originally scheduled – whether it's as a result of a delay, cancellation or overbooking.

The amount of compensation varies depending on the distance of the flight (or if they offer you alternative transport with a similar schedule) and will only apply if the cancellation or delay wasn't the result of extraordinary circumstances. These would be issues that are unpredictable, unavoidable and external to the airline, such as bad weather, a disruption as a result of a security breach or a bird-strike to the aircraft which requires an immediate damage check. 

What are you entitled to?

If flight arrives three hours or more after schedule, is cancelled or overbooked
Within the EU
Up to 1500km  €250 ($353)
More than 1500km  €400 ($565)
Between EU airport and non-EU airport
Up to 1500km €250 ($353)
1500 to 3500km €400 ($565)
More than 3500km €600 ($847)

Passengers aren't entitled to compensation if the flight is cancelled due to extraordinary circumstances, but they are still entitled to a refund (something which doesn't exist in Australia). In addition, if a flight's departure time is delayed, passengers are also entitled to assistance by way of meals, refreshments, phone calls, emails and accommodation – even if it's as a result of extraordinary circumstances.

Depending on the length of delay, passengers will be entitled to:

  • meals and refreshments
  • two free phone calls, telex or fax messages or emails.
  • hotel accommodation and transfers (if your flight is delayed until the next day).

Find out more about the scheme or how to receive your compensation.

New Zealand's scheme

Even our neighbours across the ditch have a compensation scheme in place for domestic flights that are delayed or cancelled.

When are you entitled to compensation?

Airlines operating domestic flights within New Zealand are required to compensate passengers who are delayed or have their flight cancelled as a result of internal issues such as airline staffing issues or mechanical problems. The same rules apply if passengers are bumped from the flight as a result of overbooking. However, passengers aren't able to claim compensation for delays caused by factors beyond the airline's control (such as bad weather or instructions from air traffic control).

What are you entitled to?

Compensation applies to any reasonably foreseeable extra costs incurred as a result of the delay, such as meals, taxi fares, missed events and missed flight connections. Affected passengers can claim for damages up to 10 times the cost of the ticket, or the actual cost of the delay (whichever is lower). Passengers delayed on domestic flights in New Zealand should claim compensation from the airline directly. If the airline refuses, you can take the claim to New Zealand's Disputes Tribunal.

Indonesia's scheme

Indonesia also has a scheme providing consumers with compensation if their domestic flight is delayed by four hours or more, unless it's due to bad weather or technical reasons. Affected passengers are entitled to Rp300,000 ($30) compensation. In the case of being denied boarding due to overbooking, the airline is required to arrange comparable air transportation scheduled to arrive at the destination at the same time as your ticket with no additional charge, and if this isn't possible, it is required to provide refreshments, meals, hotel accommodation and transfers.

In the US

While the United States is similar to Australia in that you won't receive compensation for your losses as a result of a flight delay, it does at least have rules in place if you are involuntarily bumped as a result of overbooking. 

In the first instance, airlines in the US must ask passengers if anyone is willing to voluntarily give up their seat on the flight in return for compensation (the amount of which is to be determined through negotiation with the airline).

However, if you are involuntarily bumped, the Department of Transportation requires that airlines compensate passengers a set amount for flights within the country as well as international flights leaving the US, in addition to getting them to their destination.

If involuntarily 'bumped' from your flight in the US
If substitute flight arrives at the destination Compensation level
Within one hour of your scheduled arrival time No compensation
  • one and two hours (domestic)
  • one and four hours (international)
of your scheduled arrival time.
Two times the value of your one-way fare, capped at $675 (AU$900)
More than:
  • two hours (domestic)
  • four hours (international)
later than your scheduled arrival time.
Four times the value of your one-way fare, capped at $1350 (AU$1799)

Your rights in Australia

While your rights under Australian Consumer Law still exist, they are by no means clear-cut when it comes to flight delays and cancellations.

When it comes to international flights, consumers have some protections for damages as a result of delay through the Montreal Convention, provided you're flying between two signatory countries. But even if you're eligible for compensation for damages after a delay, however, airlines are able to side-step these obligations if they can prove that they "took all measures that could reasonably be required to avoid the damage [as a result of the delay] or that it was impossible to take such measures".

Thomas Janson, aviation law expert at Shine Lawyers, tells CHOICE: "In my experience, where a passenger consults [the airline's Conditions of Carriage and the Convention], and informs the airline in time and with appropriate documentation, they are usually successful in securing compensation. However, the degree of compensation will vary [from] case to case".

While we do have some rights in Australia, Janson describes the system as "a bit of a labyrinth" and says a system like that in the EU could make life easier for consumers. If you have troubles, he recommends contacting the airline with your complaint in writing as soon as possible. If unsuccessful, the next port of call would be to pursue litigation, he says. Also, keep a record of your costs related to the delay.

Why is Australia lagging?

So why are Australian consumers being short-changed when it comes to clear guidance on compensation for flight delays and cancellation? In 2015, a spokesperson from the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development told us airlines are able to "offer very cheap fares on the basis that the consumer elects to assume risks associated with cancellation or delay". A "prescriptive compensation" scheme which forces airlines to assume the risks would increase the cost of airfares, said the spokesperson.

On the flip side of this, CHOICE research has found that 76% of people would be willing to pay extra for tickets to cover a scheme similar to that in the EU, with most willing to pay $2–10 extra.

What to do if you have a complaint

Just because there's no specific regulation covering flight delays and cancellations in Australia, it doesn't mean it's not worth taking your complaint further if you think it's valid. In the first instance, take your issue up directly with the airline. If this fails, you can take your complaint to the Airline Customer Advocate (ACA). The ACA is funded by participating airlines in Australia and provides a free and independent complaint resolution process.

We look more closely at the function of the ACA, and how to go about complaining about an airline, in our article Is it worth making a complaint about an airline?.

Airlines' policies compared

The airlines' conditions of carriage outline how they will manage delays and cancellations. We took a look at those of Virgin, Qantas, Jetstar and Tiger to see how they stack up. The main difference is that Jetstar and Tiger don't offer extra assistance (such as meals or accommodation), even if the cause of the delay or cancellation was within their control. No airline guarantee their flight times.  

Within the airline's control

The following policies apply to delays and cancellations that are within the airline's control, such as aircraft maintenance or crewing issues.

Within the airline's control

Put on next available flight if delayed or cancelled? Option of a refund instead? Pay for meals, refreshments, accommodation and transfers?
Virgin Yes, once delay is for more than two hours. No, but you can get a credit note valid for 12 months.
  • Refreshment vouchers at two-hour intervals while you wait at the airport
And, appropriate to the length of the delay:
  • Hotel accommodation and transport to/from the hotel, and;
Up to $50 per person per night for meals.
Qantas Yes, if Qantas makes a significant change to your flight time. Yes.
  • Meal or refreshment vouchers (or the reasonable costs reimbursed) while you wait at the airport
And, appropriate to the length of the delay:
  • Assistance to find overnight accommodation, or reasonable accommodation costs reimbursed.
Jetstar Yes, if Jetstar significantly changes your flight schedule. Yes. No.
Tiger Yes. Yes. No. 

Outside the airline's control

The airlines apply the following policies if the delay or cancellation occurs for reasons outside of their control such as bad weather or air traffic control issues.

Outside the airline's control

Put on next available flight if delayed or cancelled? Option of a refund instead? Pay for meals, refreshments, accommodation and transfers?
Virgin Yes, once delay is for more than two hours.
No, but you can get a credit note valid for 12 months.
No, but Virgin will attempt to help you source hotel accommodation and transport to/from the hotel if required.
Qantas Qantas will use "reasonable endeavours" to rebook you on the next available flight.
Yes, if Qantas can't rebook you.
Jetstar Jetstar will "try to assist you".
No, not covered in the conditions of carriage.
Tiger Yes. No, but you can get a credit note valid for booking for six months. 

Want more details?

So now you know your rights when it comes to delays and cancellations, but how about when it comes to missing baggage? Overbooking? Or when you become ill on a flight or you receive bad cabin service? Read your rights in flight for more scenarios.

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