Court defeat leaves airlines facing big bill for flight delays

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Airlines will be liable to pay delayed passengers compensation potentially totalling billions of pounds after judges rejected appeals from two carriers in a pair of landmark cases.

Industry representatives said the decision was surprising and disappointing, and warned that it could mean fare rises to cover the liability, with thousands of passengers set to launch claims for delayed flights.

The supreme court on Friday turned down applications from Jet2 and Thomson to appeal against two rulings from July this year, which allow passengers to claim for historical delays and also make airlines liable in the event of technical problems.

The court of appeal judgment in Huzar v Jet2 confirmed that the carrier should compensate the passenger, Ronald Huzar from Stockport, for a 27-hour delay caused by a wiring defect on a flight from Malaga to Manchester in October 2011. The court also upheld the £975 plus interest payout to James Dawson and his wife as compensation for a six-and-a-half-hour delay when flying Thomson from Gatwick to the Dominican Republic at Christmas 2006.

Bott and Co, a firm of solicitors specialising in compensation claims, said about 2.3 million passengers a year are substantially delayed due to aircraft faults. The rulings confirmed that passengers have six years to bring a claim for flight delay compensation, they added, estimating that historical claims could be worth £3.9bn.

Senior partner David Bott said the firm had thousands of clients whose claims had been on hold pending the supreme court decision. He said: “We will now be writing to the airlines, asking them to acknowledge the judgments, recognise their obligations and deal with these claims as promptly as possible.”

He said the ruling brought law in England and Wales in line with other European countries, and would benefit consumers.

European regulations say airlines should provide care and assistance, such as food and accommodation, to passengers during delays, and should pay compensation for delays of more than three hours, on a scale from €300 to €600 (£235-£470) plus expenses. That liability is only waived in extraordinary circumstances, defined as unpredictable, unavoidable and external, including security alerts, strikes, extreme weather and unexpected safety problems which could not be avoided through regular maintenance.

Thomson said: “We believe that it is reasonable to expect that those who perceive they have suffered a real loss as a result of an unfortunate delay should be able to make their claim within two years. We are surprised and disappointed to note the decision of the supreme court as we believe our position is sound in law. We will now review this position based on the court’s decision.”

Nathan Stower, the head of the British Air Transport Association, which represents UK airlines, said: “UK airlines support the principle of passenger protection and always meet their legal obligations. However, the rules should be clear, affordable and proportionate for the sake of passengers and airlines. The current system fails those tests and this decision will further increase costs which ultimately are borne by all passengers.

“Vital reform of the EU regulation has recently stalled in Brussels due to disagreements between the Spanish and UK governments over Gibraltar. These differences must now be urgently resolved to allow the necessary reforms to proceed.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Gwyn Topham, transport correspondent, for The Guardian on Friday 31st October 2014 18.58 Europe/London

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