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Tell it like it is: New flight delay ruling

New rules are making it easier to claim flight delay compensation

Tell it like it is: New flight delay ruling
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I’ve heard it’s now easier to claim flight delay compensation. What’s the latest?
Several recent cases in the UK Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court have ruled that airlines operating flights from Europe, regardless of destination, can’t flout European Union rules on compensation. Moreover, airlines have been told to pay claims going back six years instead of the usual two. Additionally, the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is enforcing a crackdown. It examined 15 airlines to make sure they were playing by the rules and forced three — Ryanair, Aer Lingus and Jet2 — to toe the line.

So what are my rights?
EU Directive 261 covers flight delays of three hours or more. Unless the airline can plead ‘extraordinary circumstances’, then it is legally obliged to pay you compensation under the following tariffs:

• Up to 1,500km, three hours or more: €250 (£176).
• Between 1,500-3,500km, three hours or more: €400 (£282).
• Over 3,500km, three hours or more and between two EU countries: €400 (£282).
• Over 3,500km, three to four hours:     €300 (£212).
• Over 3,500km, more than four hours: €600 (£424).

Plus, you’re entitled to two free phone calls, faxes or emails, and free meals and refreshments appropriate to the delay. These rights apply from two to four hours after your flight should have departed, depending on distance, and are automatic. Free accommodation and transfers must be provided if an overnight stay is required.

Hold on, what’s this about ‘extraordinary circumstances’?
This is the airlines’ get-out clause. They used to argue that technical faults were ‘extraordinary’ because they were unpredictable, but the Supreme Court ruled that they aren’t. Extraordinary circumstances are defined solely as ‘air traffic control decisions’, although industrial action and security risks may also count.

But if it’s an EU law, doesn’t it just apply to EU airlines?
No. It applies to all European airlines and all flights departing from Europe, regardless of destination. So, for example, an Etihad Airways flight from the UK to Abu Dhabi would be covered by EU261, but an Etihad Airways flight from Abu Dhabi to the UK would only be covered by compensation laws in the United Arab Emirates. A British Airways flight to/from Abu Dhabi, however, would be covered both ways. If EU261 doesn’t apply to your journey, you’re subject to the laws of the country of origin.

Are any airlines still contesting the six-year backdating rule?
Yes. Hungary’s Wizz Air says it’s bound by Hungarian case law and is only liable for claims dating back two years. The CAA has asked the Hungarian authorities to sort this out.

How do I claim?
Simple: you write to the airline and put forward your case. The carrier will have a record of your passenger details and an operational report for your flight. Don’t be fobbed off if you’re told to claim on your travel insurance, the law is now very clear — if it was a delay of more than three hours and not classed as ‘extraordinary circumstances’, then the airline must pay.

Keep all documents and receipts and if, for example, a staff member tells you it’s OK to make your own arrangements, such as take a taxi home after a delayed arrival, then get their full name.

But what if the claim is rejected?
The airline might try to claim extraordinary circumstances or find another way to avoid paying compensation. If it does, the CAA Advice and Complaints team will step in to adjudicate matters. Although the CAA’s view isn’t legally enforceable, it’s known to be a ‘persuasive’ body — in the past two years, airlines have paid out around £10 million compensation as a result of CAA intervention.

I can’t be bothered with all the hassle. Is there another way of claiming?
Yes. As with PPI claims, a host of firms have sprung up ready to pursue the issue on your behalf. Some companies offer to act for you in court cases — which is misleading, as no court case is usually necessary — and some will use complicated jargon to confuse or frighten you. All will charge you some kind of fee based on how much money they claim back on your behalf.

However, claiming is easy to do yourself now that the law is clear. If you do need legal help, reputable specialist law firms like Bott & Co are your best option.

Are more changes afoot?
Airlines are lobbying the European Parliament to get the law changed back in their favour, but this process will take years and may not succeed. The CAA, meanwhile, is working with a further 16 airlines to make sure they comply with the rules.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)