Claiming compensation for flights which have been delayed or cancelled due to a technical fault is set to become much easier after a landmark ruling by the European Court of Justice.
Under EU rules, passengers who are delayed by at least three hours or whose flights are cancelled can, in certain circumstances, claim up to €600 (about £420) per person, unless the delay is outside of the airline's control – known as an "extraordinary circumstance".
Whether or not technical faults count as an extraordinary circumstance has been a point of fierce contention for airlines, with many using every trick in the book to try and wriggle out of paying. But today the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in passengers' favour, in a major judgement that cannot be appealed.
The court found that technical problems, whether unexpected or discovered during routine maintenance, are not extraordinary circumstances, meaning passengers are entitled to claim compensation. It said this is because technical faults, even those caused by unexpected events, are inherent in the normal exercise of an air carrier's activity.
Solicitors' firm Bott & Co, which specialises in flight delay claims, says it alone is handling at least 15,000 claims which will be affected – these were put on hold or waiting to go to court pending today's judgement.
Read our Flight Delays guide to see if you're eligible to claim and for help doing so.
Are there any exceptions to this rule?
The court says technical faults can only be considered extraordinary if they've been caused by an event which isn't inherent in the day-to-day running of the aircraft, and is beyond the control of the airline in its nature or origin.
It says examples could include a manufacturer revealing a defect which compromises the fleet of planes, an authority discovering a hidden manufacturing defect that impinges flight safety, or damage to a plane caused by sabotage or terrorism.
'The law is clear'
Martin Lewis, founder and editor of MoneySavingExpert.com, says: "The airlines are behaving like a lovelorn third-former with a crush, continually appealing to the courts with no embarrassment about the constant rebuttal. Yet again they have tried desperately to derail EU regulation 261/2004, yet again they have failed."
"The law is clear - the law has always been clear - that you are allowed to claim for a flight delay if it was a technical fault and only in genuinely extraordinary circumstances is there an exemption.
"The problem is that even though we’ve now had it cleared up by the Supreme Court in the UK and the European Court of Justice, my concern is some of the airlines will continue to try and find excuses to not pay people. This has to stop. The law is plain and we need a formal system which doesn’t require people to go to court, where the CAA can properly enforce pay-outs as an Ombudsman would in other industries.
"Meanwhile though, thankfully there are many airlines that are playing fair and the advice is that if you’ve had a delay over three hours on a European Union flight and the cause of the delay is the airlines’ fault, then you are entitled to between £180-£440."
What does this mean for my claim?
Today's news confirms what the UK Court of Appeal ruled in the Huzar v Jet2 case last year. So while it doesn't change the law, it does strengthen passengers' case given the decision has been made by the highest court in the EU. Here's how it affects your claim.
I've yet to submit a claim. New complaints can still be submitted as normal to the airline. Read our Flight Delays guide to see if you're eligible to claim and for help doing so.
My claim's been put on hold by the airline or court. Contact the airline or court involved and ask it to remove the hold given the ECJ's judgment. It may be that airlines and courts do this automatically but it's best to check.
My claim's been rejected by the airline. If your claim's been rejected by an airline because of a technical fault, ask the airline to reassess it, although you may struggle if it now falls outside of the six-year window for claiming.
My claim's been rejected by a court. If your claim's been rejected at county court level you have 21 days to appeal the decision - after this your time runs out and the case can't be reassessed.
Airlines not playing ball
As outlined above, technical faults have long been a bone of contention for both passengers and airlines. Here's a quick recap of the key court rulings:
- June 2014: The UK Court of Appeal ruled in Huzar v Jet2 that you can claim for technical problems that haven't been caused by "extraordinary circumstances" such as component failure or general wear and tear, but not hidden manufacturing defects. It ruled that if the cause of a technical problem was one "inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier concerned", then that meant it was also within the control of the airline, meaning it would be liable to pay compensation.
- October 2014: The Supreme Court – the highest court in the UK – refused to hear the Huzar v Jet case after Jet2 tried to appeal against the Court of Appeal's decision.
- February 2015: According to Bott and Co – a solicitors' firm at the forefront of flight delay claiming – many airlines still put cases on hold pending the outcome of the van der Lans v KLM. This was tested in a case at Liverpool County Court where the court ruled the three airlines involved in the claims – Jet2, Ryanair and Wizz Air – couldn't 'put them on hold. But Ryanair appealed this decision, and Bott and Co says it has kept claims on hold pending today's case.
- August 2015: The CAA said both Jet2 and Wizz Air have confirmed they'll pay compensation going forward, following concerns they weren't consistently paying out for disruption caused by technical faults.
What does today's case relate to?
Today's case is about Corina van der Lans, whose flight operated by KLM from Quito, Ecuador to Amsterdam, Netherlands was delayed by 29 hours following two technical problems.
KLM said the delay was out of its hands, as the two defective components hadn't exceeded their average lifetime and because the manufacturer hadn't provided any specific indications as to which defects might arise if those components reached a certain age.
So van der Lans took the case to the District Court in Amsterdam, which decided to refer questions on the case to the ECJ for a preliminary ruling. It is this ruling which has been given today.
The District Court in Amsterdam will now give its judgment on the case - but it has to do so in accordance with what the ECJ has today said.
What does KLM say?
In a statement KLM says: "This statement has ensured clarity, for travellers as well as airlines, regarding the definition of a technical defect as an exceptional circumstance.
"KLM does everything in its power to assist its customers in the event of delays and strives to minimise inconvenience by providing care, information and, where possible, an alternative route.
"However, the amendment of EU261/2004 remains important, to ensure that there is a better balance between the duty to compensate customers, on the one hand, and the creation of a viable economic environment in which airlines can continue to compete, on the other."