British travellers to lose millions in flight compensation over Brexit rule change

British airline passengers are set to lose millions of pounds in flight disruption compensation each year due to Brexit.

The long-standing right to cash compensation of over £500 no longer applies for travellers making journeys to the UK from non-EU countries on airlines such as Air France, KLM and Lufthansa.

While travellers on disrupted flights who are ending their trips in the EU are entitled to hotels and meals, UK-bound passengers no longer have an automatic right to recover expenses from a European Union carrier – and are also unable to claim €600 (£513) in cash compensation when the airline is responsible for the delay.

The European air passengers’ rights regulation, known as EC261, has been in force for 17 years – benefiting millions of passengers.

But the “third-country” status the UK government sought after the vote to leave the EU means British travellers’ rights are weakened.

A ruling by the European Court of Justice means that trips from non-EU locations to British airports via hubs such as Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris CDG are excluded from compensation and care rights.

Paul Charles, chief executive of the travel consultancy The PC Agency, said: “It’s pretty clear that travellers from a ‘third country’ like the UK are now being treated as third-class citizens. This is another example where we’re worse off after Brexit, having zero rights and in a poorer position than before the separation from the EU.

“Consumers will be scratching their heads trying to work out when they’re due compensation or refunds, and when they’re not.

“The government should bring more clarity to travel and seek a change in this particular transit travel ruling, so that rights can be safeguarded and care provided in the event of delay or cancellation.”

AirHelp says 32 million journeys involving British passengers were disrupted during 2022. A large majority of these were for direct flights, for which compensation rules still apply.

The Independent calculates from schedule data and industry estimates that around 4 million passengers a year fly from non-EU countries to the UK via European hubs. Assuming just 1 per cent encounters a misconnect or other delay leading to significant disruption, those 40,000 passengers will collectively lose over £20m in compensation.

The legal case involved a traveller known only as “NT”. He was booked to travel from Chişinău in Moldova to Bangkok via Vienna on Austrian Airlines. The first leg was cancelled and he arrived late at the Thai capital.

The passenger applied for compensation from the airline through a claims handler, AirHelp.

But the court ruled the European regulation does not apply to a connecting journey on a single booking operated by an EU air carrier – “if both the departure airport of the first flight and the arrival airport of the second flight are in the territory of a third country and only the airport where the stopover takes place is in the territory of a member state”.

The Independent has seen a message from the Dutch airline KLM turning down another claim, saying: “Unfortunately in your case, your journey was from the United Kingdom to Canada and since both airports in your route are located outside the EU/EEA, you are not eligible for compensation under EC Regulation 261.”

Rights continue for all flights from the UK, so a Manchester-Amsterdam-Toronto trip would be covered under the British air passengers’ rights rules – which are exactly the same as the existing European legislation except that compensation amounts are converted from euros to sterling.

In its publication The Benefits of Brexit: How the UK is taking advantage of leaving the EU the government says “new freedoms” allow it to “enhance consumer rights and protections”.

The government specifically vowed “to improve the consumer rights of air passengers”.

The document says: “We will reposition the UK’s approach to air passenger consumer rights, improving consumer confidence and developing trust in booking travel by consulting on additional, flexible and modern tools to enforce consumer rights.”

The Independent has asked the Department for Transport for a response.

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