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Compensation when your flight is delayed or cancelled

Australia lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to compensating passengers.

woman looking at cancelled flights delays
Last updated: 02 January 2020

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.

And if the airline doesn't get you to your destination at the time specified on your ticket and you miss a connecting flight as a result, they won't necessarily take responsibility.

So what compensation are we entitled to in Australia if a flight is delayed or cancelled, and how do we compare with the rest of the world?

The situation in Australia

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.

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 whether the delay or cancellation was within their control - if it's not in the airline's control, Jetstar, Tiger and Virgin don't give any compensation. 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.

Put on next available flight if delayed or cancelled?
  • Virgin: Yes, once delay is for more than two hours.
  • Qantas: Yes, if Qantas makes a significant change to your flight time.
  • Jetstar: Yes, for delays of three hours or more.
  • Tiger: Yes.
Option of a refund instead?
  • Virgin: Yes, if Virgin can't make suitable alternative arrangements.
  • Qantas: Yes.
  • Jetstar: Yes.
  • Tiger: Yes.
Pay for meals, refreshments, accommodation and transfers?
Virgin
  • Refreshment vouchers at two-hour intervals while you wait at the airport
  • And, appropriate to the length of the delay if you're not at your home port:  reasonable cost of airport transfers, up to $220 per room per night for hotel, and up to $50 per person per night for meals.
Qantas
  • Meal or vouchers while you wait at the airport; or $30 per person overnight and $50 if over 12 hours for meals and transfers.
  • And, appropriate to the length of the delay if you're not at your home port: assistance to find overnight accommodation or up to $200 for a room.
Jetstar
  • Meal vouchers for delays over three hours or reimbursement of reasonable costs if delay is overnight.
  • Up to $150 per room plus reasonable costs of transfers (if you're not at your home port).
Tiger

Up to $120 accommodation per person per night if you are delayed overnight and not at your home port.

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.

Put on next available flight if delayed or cancelled?
  • Virgin: Yes, once delay is for more than two hours.
  • Qantas: Will book you on the next available flight.
  • Jetstar: Yes, for delays three hours or more.
  • Tiger: Yes
Option of a refund instead?
  • Virgin: Yes, if Virgin can't make suitable alternative arrangements.
  • Qantas: Yes, if Qantas can't rebook you.
  • Jetstar: No, but you can get a credit voucher for the value of your flight on request.
  • Tiger: No, but you can get a credit note valid for booking for six months. 
Pay for meals, refreshments, accommodation and transfers?
  • Virgin: No.
  • Qantas: Up to $200 for a room overnight.
  • Jetstar: No.
  • Tiger: No.

Want more details?

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, 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, told 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".

Even if you're eligible for compensation for damages after a delay, airlines are able to side-step these obligations

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?

CHOICE research has found that 22.6% of Australian travellers experienced flight delays or cancellations on international or domestic flights in 2015-16, and more than half of those delays (53%) were longer than two hours.

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.

22.6% of Australian travellers experienced flight delays or cancellations on international or domestic flights in 2015-16

So why are Australian consumers being short-changed when it comes to clear guidance on compensation for flight delays and cancellation? 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.

That may be so, but 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

In the absence of specific regulation covering flight delays and cancellations in Australia, it's still 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.

Your rights in other countries

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.