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Flight disrupted due to air traffic control chaos? Your travel and refund rights explained

Thousands of passengers have been left stranded as flights due to fly to and from the UK have been cancelled or delayed as a result of a technical glitch with the UK's air traffic control system. If you've been affected by the chaos, we've got everything you need to know about your travel and refund rights.

The problems began on Monday 28 August after a technical error meant flight plans had to be input manually by controllers, causing more than a quarter of departures and arrivals to be axed. The disruption continued into Tuesday 29 August, with flights cancelled and delayed as many aircrafts and crews are still out of position.

We round up your rights below. This applies to flights departing from the UK or EU (on any airline) or arriving in the UK or EU (but must be on a UK or EU airline). You can also read our Flight assistanceFlight delays and Flight cancellations guides for more info.

If you're on a flight from outside the EU to the UK with a non-UK/EU airline, you'll need to approach the airline you flew with for any support regarding delays or cancellations. Alternatively, you could also try your travel insurer.

Stuck at the airport or abroad? You should be given assistance

If your flight is delayed and you're stuck at the airport, or it's been cancelled and you've opted to be re-routed at the earliest opportunity but you're stuck at the airport or abroad, your airline is responsible for providing a so-called 'duty of care'. This includes:

  • Regular updates on what's going on. Ask at a check-in desk but also look at the airline's website, app and Twitter and Facebook accounts for updates. Check the email you used when booking in case you've been sent an update.

  • Food and drink. Your airline should provide food and drink (or vouchers to buy them) if you're delayed for more than two hours on a short-haul flight, three hours on medium haul (for example, Manchester to Malaga) or four hours for long haul. If it's unable to, you can buy your own and claim it back, but make sure you keep receipts. Check if your airline's website has any guidance on what it'll cover.

  • Accommodation (if needed). If the flight is delayed overnight you're entitled to a hotel, and the airline must also provide transport to and from it. Ideally it will arrange the hotel for you, so always check before you book somewhere.

  • A 'means of communication'. In this day and age, this just means the airline's likely to reimburse you for the cost of any relevant calls you make.

Note that your airline doesn't have a duty of care if your flight is cancelled and you've chosen not to fly or to be re-routed at the earliest opportunity.

Keep your receipts if you buy your own food, drink or accommodation

As we've mentioned above, if you're stuck at the airport or abroad, your airline should be proactive in providing you with food and drink (and a place to stay overnight, if necessary). If it doesn't, you should be able to claim back any reasonable expenses. When you contact your airline, you should include:

  • Receipts. To show how much you spent on food and/or a place to stay. Remember only reasonable expenses are covered, it's unlikely you'd be able to claim for alcohol. Check if your airline's website has any guidance on what it'll cover. If it does, you can include this information in your claim alongside your receipts.

  • Proof you didn't just go for the most expensive option. If you had to book a place to stay overnight, it can be useful to include the rates of nearby hotels to demonstrate that you didn't just pick the most expensive option. It's unlikely an airline will cover the cost of a luxury hotel if there's a cheaper alternative you could've used nearby.

  • Proof of delay. It can be useful to include how long your flight was delayed by – as what you get is based on how long you had to wait. Include any updates you received by text or email, or screenshots of updates posted on the airline's website or social media.
See our Stuck at the airport guide for your full rights.

Flight delayed by more than five hours? You can get a refund

If your flight is delayed for more than five hours and you no longer wish to travel, you can ask for a refund, which will include any unused parts of your booking (such as your return flight).

See our Flight delays guide for further details on your rights.

Flight cancelled? You're entitled to a refund or alternative flight

When a flight is cancelled, however long before it was due to take off, you have a legal right to choose between:

  • EITHER a refund for the flight that was cancelled.
  • OR an alternative flight (airlines call this re-routing) to your destination.

See our Flight cancellations guide for more information.

Compensation is unlikely to be due on top

If your flight's delayed for more than three hours, you may be entitled to between £210 and £520 in compensation. The same rule applies to some cancelled flights too.

Crucially, to claim compensation the cause of the delay or cancellation must be the airline's fault. Examples typically classed as within the airline's control (and therefore where you might be able to claim compensation) include:

  • The pilot was sick and not replaced.
  • The crew or pilot was late.
  • The flight was cancelled because of under-booking.
  • The airline staff were on strike.
  • Technical problems caused by something routine, such as a component failure or general wear and tear.

Air traffic control problems are not the fault of airlines, so it's unlikely you'd be entitled to compensation if your flight has been cancelled or delayed as a direct result of these problems.

If you're on a package holiday, contact your travel company

If your flight is cancelled or delayed and you've booked a package holiday, you have the same travel, refund and compensation rights we've outlined above.

However, if your flight is cancelled, you should contact your travel company directly to rearrange your flights.

If your flights can't be rearranged, or the new flights cause a "significant change" to your holiday, your travel company must offer you an alternative holiday or a full refund. According to trade association ABTA, a significant change is generally a delay of 12 hours or more on a 14-night holiday.

If you aren't covered by UK/EU rules or your airline isn't playing ball, check your insurance

If you didn't travel on a UK or EU-regulated flight, or your airline isn't paying out, you may want to check if you're covered by your travel insurance.

Depending on your travel insurance policy, you may have limited cover for delays and cancellations, though not all policies will offer this provision. Some may pay you a lump sum based on the length of delay, while others will simply refund costs you've incurred, such as hotels or alternative transport. You'll need to check your policy terms and conditions for what situations it'll cover.

Aviva and LV's Premier Policy, for example, will give you £25 for each 12-hour period you're delayed, up to a maximum of £250. Meanwhile, Direct Line will pay you up to £200 if you're delayed by more than 12 hours.

Be aware that you may need to pay what's known as an 'excess' before your insurer will pay out, so check if it's worth claiming first.

Additional reporting by the Press Association.

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