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If your flight is delayed or canceled on an international trip, the law may protect you against losses like the cost of accommodation, meals or alternative transportation. The Montreal Convention is an international treaty with over 130 participating countries, including the US It creates strict rules for how airlines handle claims for flight delays and cancellations.
This article provides an overview of how the Montreal Convention protects travelers but it is not legal advice and does not replace the professional opinion of your attorney.
Montreal Convention History
When the aviation industry was getting started in the early 1900s, crashes were an unfortunately common occurrence. As a result, airlines and their insurers were potentially exposed to immense liability. Insurance companies were appropriately nervous about issuing policies to airlines, a fact which would substantially hamper the potential of the aviation sector. To foster a prosperous aviation industry, governments developed rules to limit airline liability. This gave insurers confidence to issue airline policies at affordable prices. In 1929, the Warsaw Convention was created, which limited the value of claims travelers could make against airlines among member countries.
In 1999, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations body, held a convention in Montreal, Canada, with the goal to modernize the Warsaw Convention. Today, the Montreal Convention is a global standard and ratified in most countries with sophisticated aviation systems.
When Traveling Abroad, the Montreal Convention Likely Applies
With few exceptions, the Montreal Convention applies when passengers travel on an airline reservation that includes travel between two countries which ratified the treaty. If travel is entirely domestic, then the Montreal Convention does not apply. This is also the case if one of the countries involved has not signed either the Montreal Convention or the Warsaw Convention. Both countries must be parties to at least one of the two Conventions, with at least one being part of the Montreal Convention for it to apply.
For example, travel from New York City to Paris would be covered by the Montreal Convention, as travel is international between two treaty countries. However, travel from New York City to San Francisco is not. If travel is entirely domestic, then local law applies. In the US, Department of Transportation rules and an airline’s contract of carriage govern domestic travel.
Domestic connections with an international destination are covered if the connecting flight is on the same ticket as the international flight. If you travel from New York City to Tokyo via San Francisco, and your first flight is delayed or canceled resulting in a misconnection, then the Montreal Convention applies. But, if your domestic and international flights are on separate tickets, then your domestic flight is not covered.
Considering the wide adoption of the Montreal Convention, these scenarios apply to nearly all international air travel. Rare exceptions, like travel between two countries not part of any convention, may complicate matters.
What’s Covered by the Montreal Convention
Article 19 of the Montreal Convention makes airlines liable for damages resulting from trip delay on an international ticket subject to its rules. For example, if your eligible flight is delayed or canceled and you incur accommodation, meal or transportation costs, the airline’s Montreal Convention responsibilities may be triggered.
You may also be entitled to compensation for things like lost wages and missed non-refundable travel, but success in collecting travel costs is inconsistent among countries and US states and may involve prolonged legal action.
It’s important to note that an airline is only responsible for reimbursing your expenses, not for compensating you. Just because your trip is delayed does not mean you will be owed anything. You actually have to incur costs.
Unlike the European Union’s EU261 regulation, which requires compensation for trip delay, Montreal Convention claims for trip delay require provable damages, like hotel or restaurant receipts.
What’s Not Covered by the Montreal Convention
There are two important exceptions to an airline’s responsibility to reimburse for trip delays established in Article 20 of the Montreal Convention.
First, if you incur damages because of your own negligence or fault, the airline may not be required to reimburse you. For example, if your connecting international flight is delayed, but you still had plenty of time to make the connection, but you simply lost track of time at an airport bar and therefore missed your connection, the airline is likely exonerated from reimbursing you.
Second, if the airline can prove that it took all measures that it could reasonably take to prevent damage, or prove that it was impossible to take measures, then it may not be liable to you. This would typically include delays due to weather or other natural disasters. However, delays like mechanical or staffing issues would not usually be excluded, since the airline isn’t usually able to prove that it took all reasonable measures to prevent the delay.
It’s important to note that you have an obligation to act reasonably. So if an airline offers you accommodation at a decent hotel due to a canceled flight, and instead you book the Shangri-La, the airline could argue you acted unreasonably and, therefore, your damages aren’t reimbursable.
Sometimes airlines will try to escape responsibility by pointing to a clause in their contract of carriage, also known as a tariff. The Montreal Convention specifically states at Article 26 that clauses that limit an airline’s responsibilities are null and void. So if an airline responds to your claim by saying something like “our contract states that no compensation is owed for flight delays,” that’s an incorrect application of the law.
Special Drawing Rights (SDR) is a monetary reserve currency, or a “basket” of currencies, established by the International Monetary Fund and used by the Montreal Convention. For each form of luggage compensation, for example, the airline’s liability is capped at 5,346 SDR. 5,346 SDR is worth roughly $ 7,695 as of June 2021.
This limit is a hard cap. If your once-a-week flight is canceled and you incur $ 10,000 of hotel and meal expenses, the airline is only responsible to reimburse you up to $ 7,695.
You may also consider purchasing insurance if you want a higher level of protection for trip delay.
If you experience a trip delay, you need to make a claim for damages within two years from the date which you arrived at your destination or from the date on which you were scheduled to arrive. This is a strict deadline — if you do not make a claim within two years, you forfeit your rights.
It’s important to note that the two-year limitation period is if you choose to bring legal action against an airline. You should make a claim with the airline directly as soon as possible in order to amicably settle your claim without risking the expiration of the two-year period.
The Montreal Convention only applies to international trips. If your travel is wholly within the US, then domestic law applies. According to the US Department of Transportation there are no federal laws that require airlines to compensate passengers for a trip delay. In these cases, the airline’s contract of carriage will establish the rules for compensation. Most airlines post their contract of carriage directly on their website.
How to Enforce Your Rights
Your rights are clearly established by the Montreal Convention and there is little room for interpretation. You should make your claim with the airline as soon as possible.
Start by making your claim in writing with the airline that was responsible for the trip delay, including by email, fax, post or courier. Your claim should include copies of your flight itinerary, a brief explanation of what happened and an itemized list of damages. Finally, make sure you include receipts for all damages — while not technically required, making a claim without them will be challenging.
If you don’t get full compensation at first, escalate your complaint to a supervisor and make it clear that you’re claiming your rights under Article 19 of the Montreal Convention.
If, after speaking with a supervisor, you are unable to resolve your claim, make a complaint with the US Department of Transportation (DOT) online. Airlines are required to acknowledge the complaint within 30 days and must respond in writing within 60 days. Valid claims are usually resolved at this stage since airlines are well-aware of their obligations.
Should the airline continue to reject your claim, the DOT may review your complaint and determine whether the airline broke the law and issue an enforcement action.
When traveling internationally, your trip is likely protected for damages incurred due to delay by the Montreal Convention. There are strict rules requiring airlines to compensate you. In turn, you must file a claim in writing and on time. Compensation is limited to 5,346 SDR (~ $ 7,695), so consider purchasing insurance if you want protection for damages above that amount.