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Delayed airline passengers across Europe stand to gain millions of pounds in compensation following a key flight delay ruling today.
The European Court of Justice ruled in favour of passengers in a case involving KLM.
The court in Luxembourg decided that ‘a technical problem’ is not one of the extraordinary circumstances that airlines can use as a valid defence against paying flight delay compensation.
It follows a UK Supreme Court ruling last October that ‘technical issues’ are not extraordinary circumstances under flight delay Regulation EC 261/2004, in the landmark case of Huzar v Jet2.com.
That case unlocked £750 million in flight delay compensation for passengers in England and Wales.
But KLM has been arguing that technical issues that arise ‘spontaneously’ - as opposed to being discovered during routine maintenance - should be a valid excuse against paying out.
If the Dutch carrier had won, the vast majority of technical issues might no longer have been claimable throughout Europe because the ECJ is a higher authority than the Supreme Court.
EC 261/2004 entitles passengers to up to €600 if they are delayed by three hours or more as long as they were departing the EU or arriving in the EU on board an EU airline.
The only defence an airline has against paying compensation is when the delay was caused by an ‘extraordinary circumstance’.
The regulation does not give a definition of extraordinary circumstances, which has led to a series of lengthy court battles over the last decade.
Van der Lans v KLM is now one of the highest rulings on the issue of technical problems and is binding on all European courts.
Flight delay lawyer for Bott & Co solicitors, Kevin Clarke, who acted on behalf of Ronald Huzar in Huzar v Jet2.com, said: “The vast majority of technical defects are spontaneous and unpredictable; that is the nature of air travel.
“If there are any signs whatsoever that a part on a plane is on the verge of breaking, it is automatically replaced.
“On that basis, if KLM had won, the vast majority of technical problems might have been classed as extraordinary circumstances.
“Bott & Co brought clarity to the law when we won the case of Huzar v Jet2. Technical issues are not extraordinary; they are claimable.
“The fact that the same issue has had to go to the ECJ despite the Supreme Court Ruling shows the lengths the airline industry will go to to avoid paying out on valid claims.
“Fortunately the courts have once again ruled in favour of consumers – we’re delighted with this outcome."
A judge at Liverpool County Court ruled in February that Jet2, Thomas Cook, Ryanair, Flybe and Wizz Air could not put flight delay claims on hold to await the outcome of the Van der Lans v KLM case.
Ryanair was granted permission to appeal the decision and has been putting claims on hold pending today’s outcome.
About 15,000 Bott & Co clients alone stand to be benefit from the KLM ruling, totalling more than £4.5 million in compensation.
British Air Transport Association chief executive, Nathan Stower, said: “The vast majority of flights depart and arrive on time but we support the principle of passenger protection when things go wrong.
“Regulation helps to ensure minimum standards of care and compensation, but the rules should be clear, unambiguous and proportionate.
“Today’s judgment is the latest in a long line of cases heard by courts in this country and across Europe which shows that the current regulation fails these tests. This is because it was badly drafted, leaving it open to wide interpretation and causing considerable legal uncertainty and confusion which has not been good for passengers or airlines.
Adeline Noorderhaven, manager of EUclaim UK, said: “Extraordinary circumstances has been an airline’s only defence against paying out flight delay compensation.
“It really is time that airlines adhered to EC Regulation 261/2004 and stopped trying to wriggle out of paying air passengers compensation for the inconvenience of their delay.
“As an estimate the backlog in compensation pay outs could be in the region of €400 million per year.”
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