My flight from Heathrow to New York last September was delayed by over five hours. When we finally got on board, the pilot apologised and said it was due to a technical fault with the plane. I tried to claim compensation under the EU rules but the airline says there was a faulty instrument on the plane that needed replacing, which they couldn’t foresee, and the rules don’t cover what they call ‘extraordinary circumstances.’ They won’t pay up. Should I follow this up? Becky, Watford
Yes you certainly should. Passengers on a flight over 3,500km, starting in an EU country and delayed by over four hours, are entitled to €600 compensation each under EU directive 261/2004. For many years, some airlines claimed that technical faults weren’t covered, because they’re classed as ‘extraordinary circumstances’ or ‘an act of God’ so couldn’t be anticipated. But two important, recent court cases have ruled that this isn’t legal.
Airlines can only refuse a claim on technical grounds if it’s due to a manufacturing defect in the plane, such as a recall and hence grounding of aircraft by the manufacturer. So if a component goes wrong and needs fixing, or the aircraft gets bumped by a set of steps or a baggage truck, and they don’t have a spare plane, you’re entitled to claim.
Similarly, don’t get fobbed off by airlines telling you that they don’t have sufficient crew because someone’s gone sick. That’s an operational issue and they have to pay up. It’s only when something is genuinely beyond their control, such as a strike or severe weather, that they can refuse your claim.
If you’ve already been refused compensation by the airline, you have several options. You can go back to them, quote the ‘Sturgeon Case’ and say that you believe you are still entitled to compensation. Some airlines give a blanket refusal to initial claims in the hope people will just go away and not follow it up, so persistence can pay off.
Alternatively, you can take your case to the Civil Aviation Authority (or the relevant aviation regulator in the country where the delay happened). They rule on whether the reasons provided by the airlines are permissible. They can’t force an airline to pay up, although most will do so once you have a ruling from the CAA.
Finally you could go down a legal route and take the airline to court. There are several firms offering to take up your fight on a ‘no win no fee’ basis. But be careful to do your research and find one that specialises in these types of cases. They’ll take a cut of your compensation and the amount between firms.
Remember, you can claim for delayed or cancelled flights operated by any airline that takes off from an EU airport. But compensation for a flight into the EU from a country outside Europe is only possible if it’s operated by an EU-based airline. So a flight from San Francisco to London on British Airways would fall under the rules, but one on American Airlines wouldn’t.
Look out for some strange anomalies too – delays flying from Guadeloupe in the Caribbean to Miami in the US on Norwegian Airlines would qualify. That’s because Guadeloupe is officially part of France, so in the EU, and Norwegian Airlines operates under European aviation rules, even though Norway is outside the EU.