Flight cancellations: What are your rights for a refund?

Air travel chaos has grounded 2,000 flights – here's what you can do if you are affected

Passengers are seen waiting for delayed flights in London's Heathrow airport, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023. The British government says a cyberattack was not the cause of a breakdown at the nationwide air traffic control system that saw hundreds of flights delayed and canceled. The problem hit on a late-summer holiday Monday that is one of the busiest days of the year for air travel. Transport Secretary Mark Harper says it will
Failures in air traffic control led to the cancellation of 1,400 flights. Photo: Lucy North/PA via AP

An August Bank Holiday getaway is always fraught with potential travel glitches, but last weekend’s air traffic control failure took the word ‘glitch’ to new extremes – forcing the cancellation of 1,200 flights on Monday and around 200 on Tuesday, and leaving thousands of travellers stranded. If your holiday has been derailed by travel chaos, it’s worth getting to grips with your rights.

The good news is that if your flight was cancelled, you may still be able to get away – or get home - because if the airline is based in the UK or the EU, they have to provide either a replacement flight as soon as possible, or a refund. You may need to check if you are eligible for cancelled flight compensation first.

When they’re looking for a new flight, they have to offer the next available one, even if it’s with a different airline. Sometimes they’ll only offer their own flights, so if you’re not happy with the delay, check the alternatives. You’re entitled to book this yourself and then claim the money back – although you’ll need to have the cash available, and be prepared for delays in getting a refund.

If you’re on holiday outside the UK, and flying with an airline that’s not from the UK or the EU, things are trickier, because you don’t have these rights. You need to check the terms and conditions of the flight to see what you’re entitled to. If they don’t offer a replacement or refund, you can check to see if your travel insurance will cover you.

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If you were already at the airport when your flight was cancelled or significantly delayed, the airline will need to look after you while you wait. If you’re delayed overnight this will include putting you up in a hotel. If you are stranded on holiday, the same applies. However, this doesn’t mean keeping you in the accommodation you’ve been staying in. The travel company will choose an affordable option. If you don’t take the next available flight, the airline will stop being responsible for your food and overnight accommodation – so you can’t use the system to extend your break for free.

If it’s chaos at the airport and nobody is there to help, you can arrange this yourself, keep the receipts, and claim the costs back – but don’t go crazy, because they’re unlikely to repay the costs of staying in a swanky hotel. Unfortunately, you will be out of pocket until the repayment comes through, which can take a while.

The same applies if you decide to make your way home via an alternative route – whether that’s by boat, train or getting to a nearby airport for a quicker return journey. Just make sure your alternative is reasonable. Again, there may be delays in getting your money back, and some airlines will argue it wasn’t necessary, so it’s only worth doing if the delay otherwise would be really substantial and you have a specific reason for needing to be home sooner.

Passengers wait at Gatwick Airport, south of London, on August 29, 2023 after UK flights were delayed over a technical issue. Flights to and from the UK were experiencing disruptions after Britain's air traffic control systems were temporarily hit by a technical fault. The National Air Traffic Services (NATS) said it had
Passengers wait at Gatwick Airport: flights to and from the UK were experiencing disruptions after Britain's air traffic control systems were temporarily hit by a technical fault. Photo: Daniel LEAL / AFP

If your flight is cancelled or delayed for more than five hours, you’re entitled to a refund instead. If you choose this option, you’ll be refunded for any part of the journey you can no longer use, so if it’s outbound you’ll get the full return trip refunded, and if it’s inbound, you’ll get your money back for one way. If you’re overseas, it’ll then be up to you to find an alternative way home.

Unfortunately, there’s some bad news too. Usually if your flight is cancelled or delayed for at least three hours, then on top of everything else, you get automatic compensation. That doesn’t apply on this occasion, because the delay wasn’t the fault of the airline.

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If there are expensive consequences – like missing work, or having to pay a dog sitter for extra days, this won’t be covered. You might be able to claim on your travel insurance for some things though.

There are also complications for anyone who booked flights and accommodation separately, because you don’t have any automatic right to a refund of your accommodation if you cancel the holiday – or for any nights you miss because of delays. It’s worth checking with the hotel to see whether they offer refunds. Failing that, you can check with your travel insurer to see whether they will pay out in these kinds of circumstances.

If you’re on a package holiday which is covered by ABTA rules, you’re on firmer ground, because if they can’t rearrange your flight quickly, or they’d have to make really major changes to your holiday, they have to offer you a different holiday or a full refund.

If all of this chaos means your holiday is cancelled, it might be some consolation if you can get your money back, but you still have every right to be spectacularly miffed. After such a long period of not being able to travel, followed by the flight chaos of last summer, having your longed-for break cancelled at the last minute is just horrible.

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