Airlines must meet compensation claims where delays to flights are caused by technical problems with aircraft, rules UK court

Out-Law News | 12 Jun 2014 | 12:36 pm | 2 min. read

Airlines may face a rise in the number of compensation claims from passengers after a UK court found that the carriers are liable to pay compensation when technical problems cause flights to be delayed.

The Court of Appeal ruled that delays to flights caused by technical problems with aircraft do not qualify as an 'extraordinary circumstances' on which airlines can rely to avoid paying compensation to passengers for the delays they experience.

The Court was ruling in a case brought against Jet2 by Ronald Huzar, a passenger who claimed compensation from the airline after his flight from Malaga to Manchester in October 2011 was delayed when a wiring defect was identified on the aircraft he was due to travel on.

Jet2 has lodged an appeal against the ruling to the Supreme Court.

"I expect that firms that deal with group litigation will now pursue class actions," litigation expert Michael Fenn of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said. "I'd expect airlines to ask for similar cases to be suspended ahead of the Supreme Court's ruling."

Jet2 had argued that a technical defect that is "neither foreseen nor foreseeable" should not be deemed as "inherent in the normal exercise of the airline's activity", even whether the defect was caused by "usual wear and tear".

It claimed that it could "in no sensible way be said to have been responsible for the failure of the wiring" because it had "no control over the event causing the technical problem and could have done nothing about it in advance". The circumstances which caused the delay to Huzar's flight were extraordinary, it argued.

EU rules provide airline passengers with a general right to compensation where their flight is cancelled or where there is a delay of at least three hours to their flight arriving at its final destination.

However, the rules contain an exception which allows airlines to avoid compensation payments to passengers where the cancellation or delay is "caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken".

In the Court of Appeal's leading judgment, Lord Justice Elias said that Jet2 had failed to show that the technical problem that was behind Huzar's delayed flight satisfied two conditions, laid out in EU case law, that would qualify the issue as a 'extraordinary circumstances'.

The conditions required Jet2 to demonstrate that the "nature or origin of the event or events" that caused the technical problem was not "inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the carrier" and that the event was "beyond its actual control".

"Difficult technical problems arise as a matter of course in the ordinary operation of the carrier's activity," Lord Justice Elias said. "Some may be foreseeable and some not but all are, in my view, properly described as inherent in the normal exercise of the carrier's activity. They have their nature and origin in that activity; they are part of the wear and tear."

"The fact that a particular technical problem may be unforeseeable does not mean that it is unexpected. Problems of this nature frequently arise," he said.

Lord Justice Elias said that acts of terrorism, strikes by, or problems with air traffic control, or freak weather conditions were examples of "extraneous acts of third parties" which could be considered as beyond an airline's control.