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Smart Consumer: Airlines must pay expenses if you're delayed -- it's the law

You might not mind getting stranded in Faro in Portugal for nine days. But what if European airspace was more or less closed due to the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano and you had planned on returning home? Then it'd be a slightly different story. Add to that €1,129 that you had to spend on expenses while waiting for your re-scheduled flight and things start looking less sunny.

And at the end of it all, when you submit your receipts for reimbursement, as per your legal entitlements, the airline you had flown with, Ryanair, refused to pay up.

This is exactly what happened to Irish woman Denise McDonagh back in April 2010. When her case ended up in the District Court, it was referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for legal clarification. The Advocate General of the ECJ has now given his opinion prior to the court ruling.

He stated that Ryanair is obliged to meet the accommodation, food and other needs of passengers even in extraordinary circumstances such as the ash cloud situation.

The obligation to provide care to passengers was "especially important and essential" if their flights had been cancelled, particularly because of the nature of the disruption.

Ryanair's appeal against what they call "blatant discrimination" (against airlines) in the regulation on air passenger rights continues, but in the meanwhile it's a good reminder of the rights we do have as air passengers when a flight is cancelled or delayed.

As we enter holiday season you should make sure you know them and get them.

Delays

Your rights kick in depending on how long the delay is: over two hours for flights of 1,500km or less; over three hours for flights between 1,500 and 3,500km and over four hours for any flights longer than that.

You should then receive care and assistance, in other words meals, refreshments, telephone calls or emails and accommodation and transport to and from it if necessary.

And once the delay passes the five-hour mark and you decide not to travel, you are entitled to look for a refund for the part or parts of the journey not completed.

When it comes to additional financial compensation for delays that aren't covered by the law. Having said that, an ECJ ruling in 2010 ruled that additional compensation could be paid in some circumstances.

Cancellation

If the worst happens you have three options: wait to be put on the next available flight; re-schedule for a later date; or get a full refund and find your way home.

If you've opted to wait for the next flight, as in Denise McDonagh's case, you are entitled to the same care as in a delay; that is, your meals, calls and accommodation.

This care should be offered to you straight away. That way you shouldn't be out of pocket or find yourself having to worry about how to pay for a hotel room. But if that doesn't happen, keep all receipts and apply for reimbursement afterwards.

When it comes to cancelled flights, you are entitled to additional financial compensation and that's between €250 and €600, depending on the length of the flight.

Don't get too excited, though, because in practice this isn't given very often and the main reason is that the airline doesn't have to give it if the reason for cancellation was outside of their control.

Now it's not expected that you commit this to memory so you know where you stand if you're stuck at the airport.

And you shouldn't have to. Under the same EU Regulation, airlines have an obligation to inform passengers of their rights.

There should be a notice at check-in advising you to ask for information on your rights, plus if your flight is cancelled or delayed you should be provided with a written notice containing all the details you need.

So if you don't get it, do ask.

Irish Independent