Tens of thousands of airline passengers have been forced to take court action against airlines who refused to compensate them for delayed flights, the M.E.N. has learned.
That’s despite an EU rule which enshrines an entitlement to redress.
Compensation turns on EU Regulation 261/2004 which became effective in 2005.
It doesn’t actually mention compensation but stipulates the rights of passengers who are delayed while flying inside or to Europe, for instance the entitlement to two telephone calls, food and drink and accommodation for an overnight delay or cancellation.
Six years ago, this rule was refined by the courts to enshrine an entitlement to compensation for passengers delayed for more than three hours in certain circumstances.
But exactly how this rule is applied has been fought over ever since.
It’s something that an estimated 13,000 travellers could end up grappling with after 86 flights were cancelled last Sunday following a ‘power issue’ leading to the failure of the fuel supply system.
For starters, the law stipulates that airlines do not have to pay out in ‘extraordinary circumstance’, an oft-used escape clause.
This includes bird strikes, sabotage, terrorism, air traffic control decisions and fuel problems.
The details of what the law actually means are fought over constantly on a case-by-case basis. And in an industry where the margins are tight, each minute or detail is important.
At one point the airlines argued that the delay should be timed by the moment an aircraft touched down. The courts ruled the moment the first aircraft door opened was the appropriate marker.
One airline argued, unsuccessfully, that babies should not be entitled to compensation on the grounds they couldn’t suffer inconvenience.
A Wilmslow-based law firm which specialises in aviation industry claims has been at the forefront of this battle between passengers and the airlines.
Bott & Co will write letters to the airlines on behalf of passengers who are struggling to get compensation. As a last resort it will start court proceedings.
Since 2013, the firm has issued court proceedings for 100,000 passengers refused compensation by 150 airlines.
Including cases that didn’t involve going to court, the firm has helped 420,000 passengers in total, getting about £50m in compensation for its clients.
One of the passengers who had to resort to legal action to get paid out is Kevin Beards, a diabetic who suffered a ‘hyper’ after being kept in a stationary plane for almost three hours with no food at Manchester Airport.
Armed police were called during his episode as he was mistaken for a drunk, and he and his wife Sandra were frogmarched away from the Cyprus-bound jet.
He was, he says, forced to remove his top and inject himself with medication in front of hundreds of people because his blood sugar levels had become dangerously high – known as hyperglycaemia or a ‘hyper’.
The couple, from Chester, tried to claim compensation for the delay from Tui Airways but were ignored at first. They went to Bott & Co and have since been paid out for the 2017 incident.
When the M.E.N. published a story about the couple’s experience last year, the airline said it was sorry to hear about their experience.
Kevin, 57, said: “The airlines are just treating people like fodder. They are not interested. You are just a cash cow to them. When something goes wrong, they’re not interested in compensating people who deserve it.”
He went on: “We had been sitting on that plane at Manchester for four hours. They never apologised or anything.”
Airlines are turning a ‘blind eye’ to the problem, according to Bott & Co solicitor Coby Benson.
EU Regulation 261/2004 means passengers who have suffered a flight cancellation or been delayed over three hours could be entitled to up to 600 Euros each in compensation, providing the cause was not an ‘extraordinary circumstance’.
So will airlines be able to use this avoid compensating passengers affected by last weekend’s problems?
The answer is ‘maybe’. Fuel issues are frequently classed as ‘extraordinary circumstances’ but the airlines still have to demonstrate that they took all reasonable measures to avoid the disruption.
In last weekend’s case an airport power failure was blamed – something airlines could well claim was beyond their control.
Each case will turn on its own facts.
Lawyer Coby Benson said: “Our latest figures show that the airlines have ignored or said no to passengers on 100,000 occasions.
“We frequently handle calls from stressed passengers complaining of mistreatment and we see the airlines routinely fobbing passengers off.
“Our success rate of winning these cases for passengers shows airlines are not accepting responsibility in the fair treatment of passengers.”
A spokesman for Airlines UK, the trade association which represents airlines, said: “UK airlines need to provide good customer service to attract and retain passengers in the highly competitive markets in which they operate.
“When things do go wrong, most complaints are resolved amicably and airlines pay compensation when they are legally obliged to do so.”