Air Travel And The Importance Of Knowing Your Rights

Anyone who’s experienced a flight delay or cancellation knows the pain these events can bring.  All one’s carefully laid plans can be blown away with a simple one hour delay.  You can miss your connection, your bags might not make it to the destination, and whoever is waiting for you at the other side will be inconvenienced as well.  One delayed flight can impact thousands of people.

Related: Why Travel Agencies Aren’t Dead Yet

What should have been a routine flight for my wife and I from Rome to London with a connection in between turned into a huge ordeal.  What started out as a 30 minute delay turned into one hour, then two, and finally four hours.

To make matters worse, the substitute flight we were given flew into a different airport than the one we were supposed to go to.  This little logistic mix-up led to another one hour delay and a £100 taxi ride.  To top it all off, our bags didn’t make the connection!

Needless to say, we were extremely frustrated by the whole ordeal.  Let’s talk about air travel and passenger rights.

Passenger Rights In Europe

The European Commission sets out what rights passengers have:

You are entitled to care by the airline (phone call, refreshments, meal, accommodation, transportation to the place of accommodation) if the delay is:

  • two hours or more for flights of 1,500 km or less;
  • three hours or more for longer flights within the European Union or for other flights of between 1,500 and 3,500 km;
  • four hours or more for flights of over 3,500 km outside the European Union.

If the delay is more than five hours, and you decide not to continue your journey, you are also entitled to have your ticket reimbursed and be flown back to where you originally started your journey.

Related: Are Road Trips Really Cheaper Than Flying?

Since our delay was longer than four hours we were entitled to the services listed above.  The airline provided us with a voucher for about $12 which we could use inside the airport to get food and a drink.

When we called to complain about the delay, the person on the phone also mentioned the accommodation option, but we didn’t need to take it.

Passenger Rights In Canada

To compare this with a Canadian carrier, here is Air Canada’s view:

“In the case of delays caused by Air Canada which are expected to last longer than four hours, we will offer a voucher for use at an airport restaurant or for our Onboard Cafe© service.  We will also communicate with you at regular intervals to provide an update on the flight status with the latest, most accurate information available.  In the case of an unplanned overnight stay caused by Air Canada, we will provide out-of-town customers with meal vouchers, transportation to and from the airport as well as hotel accommodations (subject to availability).”

Right away we can see differences in the rights of passengers.  Where Air Canada will provide a voucher for food after four hours, European carriers will provide this in two hours for flights less than 1,500km.

Related: Money Saving Tips From A Budget Savvy Traveller

In Canada, there is no government backed bill to standardize passenger rights so each airline can set its own policy.  This creates an uneven playing field which is detrimental to both the airlines and passengers.  The government should step in and create some consistency like Europe or other countries already have.

While trying to research this topic further, I tried to find out about Canada’s Flight Rights program.  Unfortunately, the Transport Canada website returns a ‘404 not found error’ when I try to reach the site.  Perhaps this means the program is being re-written, but somehow I doubt it!

There at least seems to be some progress on compensation for bumped passengers with the Canadian Transport Agency indicating that passengers should be entitled to higher compensation than they are given today.


Besides cash payouts and hotel stays, one of the most important things for airlines to get right is passenger communication.  The biggest issue my wife and I had with our four hour ordeal was that the ground staff had no idea what was happening.

There were no announcements or other proactive communications on the ground to let the hundreds of waiting people know what was going on behind the scenes.  A little communication would have gone a long way to calm frayed nerves.  Less irate passengers would equal fewer complaints and fewer payouts.

Related: The Many Hidden Costs Of Travel

One thing is for sure, as passengers we should know our rights, preferably before we get on a plane.  If something does go wrong, pray that your air carrier will come through for you but don’t set your expectations too high!

We’re still waiting for our bags two days after the flight.  Has anyone else had a similar ordeal?  How did you fight back?

Andrew is a Canadian personal finance and investing blogger who recently moved to London, England.  He has a background in technology and a passion for travel.  His blog, She Thinks I’m Cheap aims to help Canadians build wealth by sharing facts, stories and advice.

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  1. Echo on August 30, 2013 at 7:57 am

    I’ve flown quite a bit within Canada and have never experienced a major delay or lost my baggage. Sounds like quite the ordeal!

    One time I voluntarily bumped myself off a flight from Toronto to Calgary in exchange for a meal and a $250 travel credit. Seemed like a good deal for a two hour wait.

    I just saw this article yesterday that said the CTA ordered Air Canada to pay passengers between $200 and $800 cash if they’re involuntarily bumped off a flight –

  2. sr on August 30, 2013 at 11:09 am

    Air Canada has a bad track record of leaving bags behind on flights going from Vancouver up to Whitehorse, Yukon. We had relatives here who’s bags did not arrive until at least 5 days after their flight. Air Canada forced us to travel to the airport once or twice a day to see if the bags came on each subsequent flight, would not even call to let us know. They gave us a phone number for a complaint line in India, to get money to replace some items. The cheques never showed up. After that, we are very insistent to visitors that even if they are traveling from overseas (which these people were), have your Canadian destination end in Vancouver, Calgary or Edmonton and then fly up on Air North. We used to just tell people to make sure everything they really need is in their carry on. After the 5 day missing bag ordeal, and many other problems with Air Canada in Whitehorse that I will not bore you with unless asked, we now just say save yourself the abuse and fly Air North, do not fly Air Canada.

  3. Keith Charles Cowan on August 30, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    We switched to WestJet to avoid Air Canada screw-ups. But my last 2 flights from Vancouver to Toronto and back were over an hour late because of poor planning and bad baggage handling.

    We flew Air Transat to Italy on their premium economy ticket. The trip over was excellent. But on the return trip, they stopped in Iceland to refuel then had to land in Calgary for a change of crew. We were 6 hours late getting back to Vancouver. Such experience is just bad management that I will not tolerate.

    I am running out of choices. Maybe I will try Air Canada again!

  4. Michael on August 30, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    I have to say that our recent travel in Europe made us appreciate the effect of the EEC (European Economic Community) on the activities of all it’s citizens. Mostly for the better as far as we could see.

    We avoid flying Air Canada whenever possible due to our past experiences at their hands – their corporate attitude towards customers is very sad indeed and is well reflected in their regulations including the one you quoted. We flew Air Transat and experienced excellent service including being kept informed when our departure flight was delayed. As you mentioned – knowing what was going on kept everyone a little more content.

    I believe that the EEC has been successful in protecting the rights of consumers simply because it has the power to resist big business. Large corporations continue to have undue influence our governments. The sad thing is that they do not realise that they are signing their own death warrants. After operating in the ‘protected’ atmosphere in Canada they are simply not equipped to take on global trade.

    Another incident you quote is the ‘404 not found error’ when you try to use the transport department site. The Defence Department site showed the same error for several weeks a while back and I contacted them by email three times to warn them it was not operating. The last email was sent to the ministers office. I did not get a reply to any of my emails.

    In contrast I had occasion to email a government department in the UK about an administrative question. I received a personable and informative reply within a couple of days. This and other experiences with our federal and provincial governments leads me to believe that our civil servants are no longer civil and (in my limited experience) do not understand that they are supposed to be serving the people who actually pay their wages. Without a strong and professional civil service we are at a disadvantage as a country in both commercial and personal activities.

    As Canadians we were able to visit many countries in Europe using just our driver licence as identification at the border. No passport required. The attitude was ‘Please come in, we are happy to have you visit.’ We were not ever asked how much liquor or cigarettes we were carrying (not that we had any anyway) nor how much we had purchased or what gifts we were carrying.

    Compare that to any attempt to drive across what should be the biggest and most friendly border in the world to visit someone in a country that we have fought alongside in many wars. The cost of our passport that is required to cross into the USA is already exorbitant and is destined to climb higher. The cost of maintaining that border security is also already far too high and also destined to cost us more in the future. Our border security is neither effective nor economically viable but we will continue to spend more on it as a result of empire building on both sides of the border and by the companies that produce the equipment and systems that will be ‘required’ in the future.

  5. Yuen Tuck on September 1, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    Not sure whether this is relevant to your readership but you might like to know that pretty much every mid to high level credit card in Malaysia offers compensation for travel delays, lost luggage and missed flights as standard (where travel has been booked with that credit card).

    In addition, obviously, you get free travel insurance.

    This was introduced a couple of years ago as a selling point. Before long all the credit card issuers picked up on it and now, well, you just wouldn’t choose a credit card without it if you’re a frequent traveller.

  6. sr on September 1, 2013 at 10:37 pm

    I will have to look at the details of my card. They upgraded me to one of their supposedly fancier cards, so who knows? maybe it covers travel as described by Yuen.

  7. Hunain @ on September 3, 2013 at 8:44 am

    Losing your bag at the airport must really suck. Fortunately I’ve never actually lost mine at the airport before. I’ll definitely be more prepared and know my rights if that ever does happen to me.

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