TUI Travel, British Airways and easyJet could be forced to pay passengers millions of pounds after losing a two year legal battle to overthrow a European law that states they must pay passengers for long delays.
As expected, the European Court of Justice today upheld the law in a ruling which will open the floodgates to claims that have been on hold for years.
The ruling by the ECJ, which is the highest court in Europe, confirms that air passengers are entitled to up to €600 (£480) compensation if they arrive at their destination three hours or longer after the scheduled arrival time.
It dismissed an application by the airlines to limit claims for delays that occurred prior to today's hearing, which means passengers can now claim compensation retrospectively. Flight-delayed.co.uk, a website that assists passengers making claims, estimated claims worth up to €90m were outstanding.
However, the ruling confirmed that airlines don't have to compensate passengers if they can prove the delay was caused by extraordinary circumstances which couldn't have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken. This includes wild-cat strikes and bad weather.
The two airlines and TUI, backed by airline association IATA, had argued that the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK was wrong to force them to pay passengers on delayed flights the same compensation as passengers whose flights had been cancelled. The CAA referred the matter to the High Court which sought clarification from the ECJ.
The ECJ said that as passengers whose flights are cancelled are entitled to compensation where their loss of time is equal to or in excess of three hours, passengers whose flights are delayed may also rely on that right where, on account of a delay to their flight, they suffer the same loss of time.
The Court also found that the requirement to compensate passengers for long delays was compatible with the Montreal Convention and that the obligation was compatible with the principle of legal certainty according to which passengers and airlines must know precisely the respective scope of their rights and obligations.
Finally, it ruled that the compensation laid down by the EU was not excessive as it only applies to long delays and airlines don't have to pay for delays caused by matters beyond their control.
Flight-delayed.co.uk said it did not expect the ruling would make it any easier for passengers to get money from the airlines when their flights are delayed.. "European judges decide over and over again in favour of air passengers. Nonetheless, receiving compensation remains a hassle," it said. "This probably will not change even after the verdict."
By Linsey McNeill
Tuesday, October 23, 2012