Carriers are altering their procedures for compensating delayed passengers after a tough warning from the regulator
AIRLINES are starting to change their terms and conditions on compensation for flight delays as the aviation regulator threatens legal action against carriers that fail to comply.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is turning up its rhetoric amid evidence that many airlines routinely flout the rules that grant passengers compensation if they arrive at their destination three or more hours later than scheduled.
In many cases passengers have waited years for a payment, only succeeding after threatening to take an airline to a small claims court. Some passengers simply give up or do not claim at all. Only 38% of passengers entitled to compensation make a claim, according to the consumer group Which?.
In its most strongly worded warning yet, the regulator told The Sunday Times it would “not hesitate” to launch “enforcement action” against airlines.
This is the second time the CAA has threatened to take airlines to court. It is understood that at least two of the three airlines warned by the regulator in March — Jet2.com, Wizz Air and Aer Lingus — will change their terms and conditions this week to comply with the law.
The CAA is also reviewing the responses it received earlier this year from other airlines about whether or not they are adhering to the compensation rules.
Its warning comes after the budget airline Ryanair went to court this month to argue that compensation claims can be made only within two years of a delay, as stated in its terms and conditions.
This is despite the fact that Britain’s Supreme Court, which is the final court of appeal, decided last year claims could be made for up to six years after a delay.
What are my rights?
Airlines must pay compensation of between £180 and £440 if a passenger arrives at their destination three or more hours later than scheduled. The rules were introduced in 2004 by the European Union.
The amount of compensation depends on the length of the journey and the delay. If the delay is three hours or more from scheduled arrival time and the trip is less than 1,500km — for example, London to Paris — you can claim the minimum €250 (about £179 at the current exchange rate). If the flight is 1,500km to 3,500km — Manchester to Malaga, say — you can claim €400. The maximum €600 can be claimed if a flight is delayed for more than four hours and the distance is more than 3,500km.
Airlines can refuse payment only if the delay was the result of an “extraordinary circumstance” beyond their control, such as a security threat, industrial action or extreme weather.
However, carriers have repeatedly refused or delayed payments, challenging the EU regulations in court. Compensation is not paid automatically: each passenger must claim.
If a flight is delayed by more than two hours or is cancelled, the airline must offer refreshments — and accommodation if an overnight stay is required. After a five-hour delay, passengers can cancel the trip and demand a full refund and a flight back to their place of departure.
You can claim compensation if you fly from an airport within the EU or travel with an airline that has its head office in the EU and you are due to land at an EU airport. For example, an Air India flight from Heathrow to Delhi would be covered by the regulations because it leaves from a European airport, but an Air India trip from Delhi to Heathrow would not.
The European rules do not stipulate how many years passengers have to claim compensation for a delay. They say the law of each country will apply.
Template letters showing how to word claims are available online, including atwhich.co.uk and bottonline.co.uk. If you decide to use a lawyer, expect to lose about 30% of any payout.
Why is the regulator making its threat now?
The CAA said in a report in March that Ryanair does not limit claims to two years so it was excluded from any legal threat at the time. Only Wizz Air, Jet2.com and Aer Lingus were named in its enforcement action.
However, Ryanair told The Sunday Times last week the two-year limit on claims “has always been our policy”.
The CAA responded: “Where we find evidence that an airline is not complying with these regulations we will not hesitate to launch enforcement action, as we did against three operators in March this year.
“We have since carried out further investigations, which include checking the validity of airlines’ previous responses to us, and our next round of enforcement action will be announced shortly.
“The law is clear that air passengers have up to six years to refer their claim to an airline. This has been legally tested and was reaffirmed by the [Supreme Court] last year. The CAA is committed to protecting the rights of air passengers and will leave no stone unturned in our determination to ensure all airlines comply.”
Haven’t airlines been challenging the payment rules for years?
Yes. The Ryanair case, lodged in Manchester county court, is just the latest legal challenge by an airline against the EU law.
Since the rule’s introduction in 2004, airlines have brought 11 separate court cases across Europe challenging different aspects of the law. In some cases, compensation payments have been delayed pending a court decision.
Arguments were made about whether or not the compensation is due if a flight is just delayed rather than cancelled; whether or not technical faults can be classed as an extraordinary circumstance; and whether or not claims can be made two years after the delay.
In all 11 cases, judges have found against the airlines.
The latest Ryanair case focuses on specific aspects of UK contract law and so is different from previous cases brought over the two-year limit on claims.
The airline said: “Ryanair does not comment on pending legal matters, deals with each claim on a case-by-case basis and fully complies with all [EU] legislation.”
What do lawyers say?
Kevin Clarke of the solicitor Bott & Co, a specialist in flight delay compensation claims, said: “The Supreme Court said passengers have six years to bring a claim. That is a definitive, binding, clear judgment from the highest court in England and Wales.
“This should have concluded matters but unfortunately we are now in a position where Ryanair has been able to tweak the argument and we find ourselves running a complicated court case arguing the fine points of contract law.
“The CAA could have intervened, as they did with Jet2.com and Wizz Air under the Enterprise Act, but instead they produced a report saying Ryanair were paying claims out up to six years.
“We have hundreds of clients who will say otherwise.”
‘We had to wait more than 3 years’
Mike Clement, 67, and his wife Barbara, 65, from Merseyside, had to wait more than three years and fire off more than 90 emails to get their £570 compensation for a delayed Monarch Airlines flight.
The couple were delayed for more than three hours flying from Larnaca in Cyprus to Manchester in December 2011. But they had to await two court decisions before getting their payout. In both cases, the courts found in favour of passengers.
The second ruling was in October last year. Monarch informed the Clements seven months later, in May, that their compensation would be paid. They received a cheque on July 25.
Mike said: “The settlement was achieved through my perseverance. I did it not for pecuniary reasons, but on principle. It should not have been such a complicated process to get what we were entitled to.”
Monarch said it had to await the court decisions and had to deal with a significant backlog of claims after the courts found against airlines. It said: “Monarch Airlines has worked hard to resolve all outstanding cases as quickly as possible and the initial group of claims, following the ruling, has now been cleared. For customers who have made more recent claims, Monarch Airlines aims to resolve cases within 28 days.”