Published on Thursday, June 6, 2013
British Airways is facing a compensation bill that could run into millions of pounds after one of its aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing at Heathrow, leading to the closure of one runway and the cancellation of 193 flights last month.
Thousands of passengers were held up at Heathrow for several hours after an engine fire on a BA flight to Oslo forced the pilot to return to the airport shortly after takeoff on the morning of May 24, blocking one of the two runways and prompting BA to cancel all short-haul services out of the airport until mid-afternoon.
Initially BA denied it was obliged to compensate passengers under EU rules, claiming the cancellations were due to 'extraordinary circumstances'. It implied it had fulfilled its obligations to delayed passengers by providing them with food, beverages and accommodation where necessary.
However, an Air Accident Investigation Branch found the engine fire on BA flight 762 was caused not by a bird strike as originally thought, which would have been classed as an 'extraordinary circumstance', but due to the fact cowls over both engines had accidentally been left open, causing them to rip off during takeoff.
Raymond Veldkamp of Flight-delayed.co.uk, which pursues compensation claims on behalf of passengers, said that under EU rule 261, BA would be obliged to compensate at least the 75 passengers who were on the Oslo flight.
"On this particular flight, an unexpected flight safety shortcoming occurred, which would normally indemnify the airline from liability. However, this issue was a direct result of a lack of proper safety checks being performed during the maintenance," he said.
"Allegedly, BA was also made aware of the possible dangers of not securing the engine cowls. So this is a textbook example of an incident that can be accredited to the operational responsibility of an airline. In short, the passengers on this flight are entitled to receive compensation from BA in our judgment."
The airline is also likely to face compensation claims from passengers on other flights that BA was forced to cancel on May 24 as a direct result of the engine fire, although whether their claims will succeed is less clear.
"Our experience is that different national courts have ruled contrasting verdicts in similar cases in the past. The regulations are too ambiguous to predict the final outcome for this case," said Veldkamp. "However, we deem it likely that those passengers will have a strong case as soon as BA is going to pay-out compensation (admitting their wrong) to passengers of flight BA762."
He said passengers on flights operated by other airlines that were also cancelled on that day would most likely not be entitled to compensation. "As this is an EU matter however, different national courts have in the past ruled differently on cases that were nearly identical to each other," added Veldkamp.
"This means that Regulation is still too ambiguous to predict the final outcome of complex cases like this one."
BA said: "We will assess every claim we receive and will meet the legal obligations as laid out in EU261." Its press office said it did not have figures for the total number of passengers affected although it is understood that the majority of the 193 flights cancelled were operated by BA.
By Linsey McNeill
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