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A Guide on Flight Delay Compensation for US Carriers

Flight delays are somewhat rare occurrences in air travel. But, when it happens, it is important to understand your rights and what compensation you are entitled to as a result of a delay or perhaps, even cancellation. Airline carriers in the United States must comply with aviation policies which are created by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Additionally, there are situations where compensation for flight delays may or may not be required.

In this travel guide prepared by Treknova, we will provide you with an insight into the types of compensation that you may or may not be entitled to when flying on a US-based airline carrier, like American Airlines, Delta Airlines, United Airlines and others.

A Quick Look at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Policy toward Flight Delays

The United States government does not require airlines to provide you with compensation in the event of a delay. When you are planning a trip, you should also keep in mind that airlines do not guarantee their schedules. While airlines want to get passengers to their destinations on time, there are many things that can and sometimes do could make it difficult for flights to arrive on time. Some problems, like bad weather, air traffic delays, and mechanical issues are hard to predict and often beyond the airlines’ control.

In the United States, airlines are not required to compensate passengers when flights are delayed or cancelled. Compensation is required by U.S. law only when certain passengers are “bumped” from a flight that is oversold. The Department’s rules regarding flight delays (and cancellations) apply only to flights that operate to, from, or within the United States. However, passengers flying between or within foreign countries may be protected from flight delays and cancellations by the laws of another nation.

Thus, the DOT states in its policy, “There are no federal laws requiring airlines to provide passengers with money or other compensation when their flights are delayed. Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers. If your flight is experiencing a long delay, ask airline staff if they will pay for meals or a hotel room. While some airlines offer these amenities to passengers, others do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers.” Here is a guide for claiming refund on flight cancellation.

Flight Delays that Don’t Require Compensation

Bad weather, air traffic delays, and mechanical issues can be difficult to predict and sometimes outside of the control of the airline. With that said, passengers are not required to be compensated by the airline if their flight is delayed or cancelled for these bad weather, air traffic delays, or mechanical issues. If you find yourself with a delayed flight due to one of these reasons, you should ask the original airline if it will pay for a ticket on another airline. Though the DOT does not require the airline to offer compensation, it does not hurt to ask either.

With no federal compensation requirement for delayed passengers, you can go through the policies of the airline to determine what compensation the airline will offer. If a significant delay occurs, you can ask the airline if it will compensate you for meals during the delay. If the airline does not immediately offer you compensation for your meals or expenses incurred during the delay, you may be able to get reimbursed for expenses incurred under Article 19 of the Montreal Convention by filing a claim with the airline. If that claim is denied, you could also pursue reimbursement in court.

As for travellers with a cancelled flight, the airline should rebook you on its first flight with available space to your destination at no additional charge. If the rebooked flight requires a significant delay, ask the original airline if it will pay for a ticket on another airline.

Compensation for Delays

Under U.S. federal law, airlines are not required to compensate passengers for delayed flights. However, each airline has its own policy about how to approach long-flight delays. You can read your airline’s policy to know what they may owe you. Some airlines will pay for meals or a hotel room, or even partial compensation.

European Union law, however, is different. If you are travelling from the EU or flying to an EU country with a European airline, you are entitled to compensation if your flight is delayed for longer than three hours or cancelled. Also, the exact compensation the airline is required to give to its passengers varies depending on the destination and how long the flight is delayed.

This is given as follows:

  • Compensation between $300 and $480 is provided in case of a delay for three hours or more within the EU, depending on the flight distance.
  • A compensation of $360 is provided in case of a delay of three to four hours between an EU and non-EU airport.
  • A compensation of $720 is provided in case of a delay for four hours or more between an EU and non-EU airport.

Compensation for Cancellations

If a flight is cancelled, most airlines rebook their passengers on the next available flight to their destination, free of charge. If a passenger chooses to cancel his or her trip after a flight cancellation, however, the airline is required under U.S. law to provide a full refund for the unused flight, even if the ticket was non-refundable. These passengers are also entitled to a refund for bag fees and any other extra purchases.

If your flight is cancelled and the next available trip does not depart until the next day, your airline is not required by law to pay for meals or a hotel room. However, some airlines have policies regarding these situations, so it does not hurt to ask your airline what amenities it may provide to stranded passengers.

Additionally, if a cancelled flight affects your holiday plans, the airline is not required to reimburse you for any trip costs you may have lost. For this reason, it is best to purchase insurance for those parts of your travel expenditures.

Notifications for Flight Delays

Under federal law, airlines are required to inform their passengers about flight status changes if that flight is scheduled to depart within seven days. Airlines must make these notifications within 30 minutes of learning about the flight status change, and the notification must at least be made on the airline’s website and telephone reservation system. Moreover, for flights delayed 30 minutes or longer, airlines have to update all flight status displays at U.S. airports within half an hour of learning about the delay.

Compensation Requirements by Major US Airlines

If the delay is only a couple of hours, do not expect much. However, if the delays longer than that, you might be able to more easily convince the airline to offer you compensation. If you have status and/or are flying first or business class your odds for compensation will likely go up.

If your flight delay does meet the policy threshold, then you can be entitled to different forms of compensation for your delay. The policy threshold requirements will vary between airlines but a delay of more than 4 hours during the night (i.e., after 10 pm) seems to suffice.

Here are some examples of the compensation requirements by a few US airline carriers.

American Airlines states, “If the delay is our fault or you’re diverted to another city, and we don’t board before 11:59 p.m. local time on your scheduled arrival day, we’ll arrange an overnight stay or cover the cost of an approved hotel, if available.”

Delta Air Lines states, “when a passenger’s travel is interrupted for more than 4 hours after the scheduled departure time as a result of flight cancellation or delay on the date of travel other than from force majeure, Delta will provide the passenger with amenities during the delay.”

United Airlines states, “UA will provide at its option either one night’s lodging or if no lodging is provided and upon the passenger’s request only, reimbursement for one night’s lodging in the form of an electronic travel certificate… [when] the Passenger incurs a delay that is expected to exceed four hours between the hours of 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. local time.”

Types of Compensation Offered by US Airlines Due to Flight Delay

You need to be very cautious about turning down whatever options are offered to you by an airline. For example, if you would rather stay at a different hotel or take a different mode of transportation than what is offered to you, there is a good chance you will have to pay for it.

Below are the most common types of compensation offered by airlines in the United States.

(a) Hotels

If you meet the delay requirements you can expect to receive a hotel stay but usually only at hotels that the airline contracts with. For example, Delta will provide you with a voucher for one night’s lodging at a “contracted hotel” when the four-hour delay is during the period of 10:00 pm to 6:00 am. They will also provide free public ground transportation to the hotel if the hotel does not offer such a service.

However, bear in mind that if those hotels are not available, your reimbursement may come in the form of a travel voucher. Also, if you are at your home, the airline will not provide you with a hotel and will expect you to simply go back home for the night.

(b) Ground Transportation

If your flight is diverted to another airport, some airlines will furnish ground transportation to the destination airport. But again, you may want to make sure that your delay meets that threshold before you go paying for an expensive taxi ride to another airport in the region.

(c) Other Amenities

You can also get your meals covered or reimbursed. For example, United Air Lines states, “If your flight is cancelled because of a mechanical issue or other circumstances within our control, we will try to accommodate you in a nearby hotel at our expense. If we’re unable to book a hotel room for you, we may be able to provide you with reimbursement for overnight accommodations you obtain on your own, including your hotel, ground transportation and meals.”

Other airlines may also provide amenities necessary to maintain the safety and/or welfare of customers with special needs such as unaccompanied children and customers with disabilities.

(d) Luggage

Sometimes, when a flight delay occurs, you get separated from your luggage, especially when dealing with missed connections. When this happens, your luggage might be kept at the airport until you arrive on the next flight.

But, if you are not going to have it for an overnight stay, the airline may provide you with a toiletry kit.

(e) Tarmac delays

There are not many things worse than getting stuck on the tarmac for long periods of time.

Below are the federal rules for tarmac delays:

  • Airlines must offer food, drink, lavatories, and medical care within two hours of a tarmac delay.
  • For domestic flights, tarmac delays should be no longer than 3 hours.
  • For international flights, tarmac delays should be no longer than 4 hours.

However, there are exceptions which could mean waiting even longer on the tarmac. These exceptions include things like the pilot-in-command determining there is a safety-related or security-related reason (e.g., weather) or air traffic control advice de-planing passengers would significantly disrupt airport operations. This means there is really nothing that can be done if you are stuck on the tarmac for less than three hours. And that in some cases, you can be stuck there even for a longer period of time.

How to Request for Compensation from Your Airline

In many cases, it makes sense to approach the gate agents, or customer service desk, or simply call in to try to resolve your issues. If you are in a lounge, you can often check with the agents working at the help desk in the lounge. Trying to resolve things via social media can also be a solid route. If you are really pressed for time, you are better off doing all of them simultaneously i.e., calling in, waiting in line, and maybe even contact the airline for assistance on social media.

Be sure to keep all of your receipts and try to do some research on the contract of carriage or applicable laws so that you have a basis for stating what you are entitled to.

(i) Complaint with the airline

If you are not able to resolve your issues, then you can file a complaint with the airline. There are usually forms you can submit your complaint through, but you can also send a letter to corporate headquarters. Obviously, if you need things to happen in real-time, calling in and speaking to agents is the way to go.

DOT requires airlines to acknowledge consumer complaints within 30 days of receiving them and to send consumers written responses addressing these complaints within 60 days of receiving them.

(ii) Complaint with the DOT

If you are unable to resolve anything through that process, then you might want to look into filing a complaint with the DOT.

(c) Credit Cards

There is not much guarantee that you will be able to get reimbursement for flight delays. And so, you may want to have a backup plan. This is not just for dealing with lodging and meals for unexpected delays, but for those non-refundable travel purchases as well.

For example, if you can’t make your flight due to severe weather conditions and you end up losing out on pre-paid travel expenses, like hotel stays or even a cruise, the airline will not offer you anything in a lot of cases. However, if you have a travel rewards card that has guaranteed protection, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, then you will be able to cover your losses in many cases.


It is very helpful to be versed in what types of compensation you can be offered from the major US airline carriers before anything happens. It is unfortunate that there is no mandatory compensation required for many flight delays. However, there are at least certain routes available to help you, especially when things become unpleasant with your travel.

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