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Airlines must pay compensation for flight delays for three hours or more, following a EU ruling, but nothing for ‘extraordinary circumstances’

Short-haul air passengers who are delayed by more than three hours can expect to be compensated after airlines lost a legal fight in the European court today.

A number of airlines, including British Airways and easyJet, had challenged a 2009 ruling that passengers on flights to and from Europe should be compensated if they are delayed for more than three hours.

Today the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg confirmed the 2009 ruling after the airlines had challenged the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) over the matter.

There will still be exceptional circumstanceswhere compensation will not have to be paid, such as industrial action and extreme weather.

“Cash compensation only applies if the delay can be shown to be the airline’s fault,” Nick Trend, Telegraph Travel’s consumer correspondent  said. “If the airline can argue successfully that the delay is caused by ‘extraordinary circumstances’ – it does not have to pay compensation.“Unfortunately, the definition of ‘extraordinary’ is used to cover most delays, including those caused by bad weather, fog, air traffic control or other strikes, political instability and one-off incidents such as the ash cloud that brought European aviation to a stand-still in 2010. In practice, it is only in a relatively small proportion of cases, such as a technical problem with an aircraft, when the airline becomes liable. And airlines hold all the cards – it may be hard, and an expensive process, for a consumer to prove what caused the delay.”CAA regulatory policy director Iain Osborne said: ‘Every year around 200million passengers travel on two million flights to and from the UK, with the vast majority experiencing no problems.’However, when something does go wrong, there are regulations in place to protect travellers, and the CAA is ready to ensure companies abide by them.

‘Today’s judgment from the Court of Justice of the European Union offers much needed clarity for passengers, the airline industry and the CAA about when compensation must be paid following delays.’

A British Airways spokesman said: ‘We are aware of the ruling and will continue to comply with the regulations.’

Travel company Tui, which was involved in the legal challenge, said: ‘We note today’s ruling by the ECJ.

‘We are committed to treating our customers fairly and will continue to work with the European institutions to ensure that the underlying legislation is revised such that it strikes the right balance for passengers and airlines.’

An easyJet spokesman said: ‘We are disappointed with the outcome but we are pleased we have final clarification and certainty on this issue. We will do everything we can to ensure our passengers do not have delays. Our priority is to look after our passengers.’