Britain’s aviation regulator has begun enforcement action against Ryanair to make the budget airline pay compensation to thousands of delayed passengers in the wake of a European court judgment.
Its announcement came hours after a final ruling from the European court of justice opened the floodgates for compensation claims against airlines that could run into hundreds of millions of pounds.
Individuals will be able to claim as much as €600 (£437) a head after the court said airlines must pay out if flights are delayed or cancelled for “technical reasons”. Thousands of claims made by passengers of Ryanair, Flybe, Thomas Cook, Jet2 and WizzAir were put on hold pending the outcome of the ruling, which involved Dutch airline KLM.
Once the judgment was handed down, the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority revealed it had already been reviewing Ryanair’s compliance with European consumer law, and had concluded that it was “not satisfied” with the way the airline was handling compensation claims for disruption caused by routine technical faults. The CAA said that because Ryanair was not complying with the law, it was taking enforcement action to ensure UK passengers were protected – and it warned that if the airline did not change its policy, court action could follow.
Thursday’s ruling concerned a flight from Quito in Ecuador to Amsterdam taken in 2009 by passenger Corina van der Lans, which was delayed by 29 hours. Her claim for compensation was rejected after KLM argued it could not be held responsible for technical problems that emerged just before take off.
Most airlines, particularly budget carriers, have routinely rejected claims from passengers seeking compensation until the outcome of the KLM case.
The court ruled: “The airline must ensure the maintenance and proper functioning of all aircrafts used for commercial activities. No component of an aircraft is indestructible; these situations are inherent in the normal operations of an airline. Therefore, when a flight is cancelled due to unforeseen technical errors, the airline remains obliged to pay compensation to its passengers.”
Compensation lawyers said they will now go back to court with thousands of cases rejected by budget airlines.
Kevin Clarke, flight delay lawyer with solicitors Bott & Co, said it had 15,000 cases pending against airlines, with Ryanair making up the largest group. “We 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 European court of justice despite the [UK] 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.”
Under the EU compensation rules, passengers whose flight is cancelled or arrives more than three hours late can claim €250-€600 depending on the distance of the flight. The compensation applies to flights departing from any EU airport or arriving in the EU with an EU carrier or one from Iceland, Norway or Switzerland.
Ryanair said: “Ryanair notes today’s decision in the KLM case and will continue to comply with the EU261 legislation. Since less than half of 1% of Ryanair flights are delayed by over three hours, this ruling will have less effect on Ryanair than any other airline.” Commenting on the CAA’s move, he said the airline was unsure why enforcement action was being threatened when Ryanair was complying fully with EU 261 regulations.
Passengers seeking compensation may still face a battle for compensation. Airlines frequently cite “adverse weather conditions”, which allows them to legally sidestep claims. However, determined travellers have later proved there were no weather problems.
Airlines are now likely to shift to a separate defence to reject compensation claims, claiming that the technical fault was actually a “hidden manufacturing defect”. This also allows them to legally sidestep claims, although lawyers say that when cases reach court the airline is usually unable to supply adequate proof.
“Approximately 79% of the claims are immediately rejected, yet when we take a claim to court we win 98% of the time, even in the case of technical errors,” said Raymond Veldkamp of the claims firm Flight-Delayed.
But he added: “This judgment still leaves room for interpretation and as we’ve seen with previous smaller judgments, airlines are incredibly creative.”