Denied Boarding

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Denied boarding really happens

It is an unfortunate reality that passengers are all too often denied boarding, often regardless of the fact that they possess plane tickets, checked in correctly and arrived at the airport gate on time. This is commonly not even caused by a flight delay or cancellation. There are many instances where flights take place according to the schedule time, nevertheless passengers who have not committed any wrong doing are denied entry on to the plane. These situations can leave any denied passenger feeling helpless and frustrated, more so when airlines are not cooperative and unhelpful. Below is an overview of common denied boarding cases and the legal rules that apply to them.

Denied boarding compensation rules in the EU

An overbooked flight is one of the most common reasons where passengers are denied boarding. It has become a common practice in the aviation industry for airlines to sell more tickets than the actual plane seats available. This practice takes place regardless of the fact that each passenger is entitled to board this flight and be transported.

The reason for the airlines’ overbooking practices, are the commonly referred to ‘no-shows’. These refer to customers who, in spite of having a valid ticket let their flight expire, either intentionally or because they are prevented from taking the flight for other reasons. Such ‘no-shows’ are especially important for low-cost airlines when it comes to calculating sales. Travelers who book tickets in advance and at special rates of just a few Euros (sometimes are unsure whether they really want to use the flight), motivate airlines to pass supposedly empty seats to other passengers. In order to maximize aircraft capacity, the airlines use complex computational models to estimate the No-Show-Rate for each connection. These calculations usually result in more tickets sold than there are seats available. In this way, airlines maximize on efficiency and income secured. At Lufthansa alone, approximately three million passengers do not appear at the check-in counter per year. To protect passengers who are denied boarding a flight, the EU regulation on air passenger rights sets out a number of requirements that airlines must comply with.

EU flight passenger rights apply to intra-EU flights operated by an EU or non-EU airline, flights from a non-EU country to the EU operated by an EU airline and all flights from the EU to a non-EU country, including denied boarding on U.S. and other overseas flights departing from an EU airport.

Flights in which you are you entitled to compensation:

Flight route
EU Airline (e.g. Lufthansa, British Airways)
Non-eu Airline (e.g. United Airlines, Emirates)
Flights within the EU (Munich → Barcelona)
Flights into the EU (New York → Dusseldorf)
Flights outside the EU (Hamburg → Moscow)

What happens in the case of overbooking?

If a flight is overbooked, the airline is mandated to request for volunteer passengers who are willing to give up their flight, before arbitrarily refusing to board individual passengers. Depending on the individual case, the airlines should offer a certain amount of compensation, as well as a free substitute flight with the next possible aircraft. If you are denied boarding due to overbooking, depending on the type of flight connection, you are entitled to receive support for food, accommodation and a denied boarding compensation of up to 600 EUR per passenger.

Assistance: Affected passengers may choose between full reimbursement of the fare or a reimbursement for the unused leg of the journey. This is accompanied by free return transport to the point of departure or re-routing to the destination at the earliest possible convenience.

In addition, there are some denied boarding compensation rules to watch out for which entitle you to free meals and drinks, two free phone calls, two free e-mails or two faxes. In the event of transportation delays incurring on the following day, the airline must organize free of charge a hotel room and taxi transfer to and from the hotel.

Overview of additional compensation services in case of denied boarding:

Involuntary denied boarding compensation payments

  • Based on the EU denied boarding compensation statutory you are entitled for flight routes of up to 1 500 kilometers, to a compensation payment of 250 EUR.
  • For flights within the EU over 1 500 kilometers and for all other flights between 1 500 and 3 500 kilometers, the compensation amount is 400 EUR.
  • For all connections with more than 3 500 kilometers of flight distance beyond the EU border, airlines are liable to pay 600 EUR. All compensation amounts are per person and are valid for all citizens of the world.

Applicable compensation amount based on flight distance

New York
New York
600 € From 3 500 km
400 € Between 3 500 km - 1 500 km
250 € Up to 1 500 km

If you are denied boarding and the airline offers you an alternative flight, you may still be entitled to receive compensation, even if this alternative flight was scheduled within a few hours or days after the original flight plan. The so called involuntary denied boarding compensation amount however, may be reduced by half depending on the flight route and time in which the airline was able to provide the alternative flight:

  • For all flights over a distance of 1 500 kilometers or less, the replacement flight must be made no later than two hours after the refused flight.
  • For all intra-EU flights over a distance of more than 1 500 kilometers and for all other flights over a distance between 1 500 and 3 500 kilometers, the time window is three hours.
  • For all other long-haul flights, the replacement flight must take off within four hours, otherwise the passenger must be awarded the full compensation.

Other reasons for denied boarding

Although overbooking is the most common reason for denied boarding, there are a number of other reasons for airlines to exclude passengers from boarding the aircraft. Whether or not these are justifiable depends on each individual case. There are many standard situations, which one should be aware of in order to ensure one’s rights are upheld.

If you are traveling without the credit card you used to book your flight, some airlines will refuse to let you board. The airlines usually indicate this clause on their websites and in their general terms and conditions. The airlines argument is that these terms and conditions of contract (AGB) were accepted upon the moment of purchasing the ticket.

However, as found in precedent laid down by the German Regional Court of Frankfurt, such clauses are inadmissible and thus invalid. If the airline refuses to let you board because of a missing credit card, you will be entitled to compensation in accordance with the rules prescribed above. Though this incident does not happen too often anymore, as airlines became much more flexible with that regulation and trying to smooth the travel experience of passengers.

Passengers should be aware that airlines are not liable to compensate you should you arrive late at the check- in counter. Some airlines may lay out the expected check-in time in their terms of contract. If this is not provided it is customary that all passengers should arrive at the counter before their scheduled flight no less than 45 minutes for intra-EU flights and no less than 60 minutes for non-EU flights, this will also apply to passengers who have checked in online. These mentioned check-in times are common practice. You should however, respect and take note of the check-in times specific to the individual airline, as this may even differ from airport to airport. Where passengers are denied boarding because they arrived late to check-in or could not provide the necessary documents such as passports and visas, the airline will not be held liable to provide compensation or alternative transportation.

One of the most difficult cases to determine is when an airline refuses to take you on board because it classifies you as a safety risk due to drunkenness, illness or other physical limitations. The airlines are permitted to deny boarding based on these factors, but due to the scope of judgement required in these instances, legal disputes often arise. Conspicuous behavior, an alcoholic state, obesity or even certain disabilities have in numerous cases led to a denied boarding. Whether such boarding refusal is legitimate will usually be determined by the courts on a case by case basis. In instances of a safety risk airlines are most likely to have a strong case as they are ultimately responsible for the safety of all passengers and staff on board and no risk is tolerated in this regard.

The EU Regulation 261/2004

The Denied Boarding Regulation as determined by the EU Regulation 261/2004 provides clarity and certainty, leaving little room for interpretation in the area of boarding refusal/denied boarding. Often it is not easy for affected passengers to understand their specific rights and how to enforce it. It is no secret that airline companies are trying to avoid these compensation payments as it hurts them financially, and an often applied strategy is just to ignore these claims. The only possible way to enforce these claims is to pursue this in court, but this brings with it an additional cost risk factor and an even higher administration burden. We help our clients to enforce their boarding rights and to ensure the best possible outcome for every situation. We take over all administrative work and financial risk, only charging a commission for cases that win

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Get up to 600 €* in compensation