/ Money, Travel & Leisure

Will lightning strike twice for flight delay claims?

A few weeks ago, two passengers were awarded £450 each for a five-hour flight delay. So far, so unremarkable. But could the reasons for the ruling open the floodgates for many more claims?

If you’ve suffered a long flight delay and the airline can prove it was caused by ‘extraordinary circumstances’, you won’t receive any compensation. This has led to several points of contention between passengers and airlines in the courts.

And we’ve certainly seen airlines offer up some surprising excuses to avoid paying since we launched our flight delays and cancellation compensation tool. One of the strangest I’ve heard recently involves an airline (which will remain unnamed) blaming a delay of more than three hours on the ‘extraordinary circumstance’ of a small carton of orange juice leaking in an overhead locker!

But in this Reading County Court case the plane had been struck by lightning.

A thunderbolt of lightning for airlines?

Most aircraft struck by lightning arrive safely and on time. But delays can occur when the plane lands and is subject to mandatory safety checks and the airline does not have relief aircraft in place.

In this case, the airline didn’t have spare aircraft available so passengers had to wait for the plane that had been struck by lightning to be checked.

In a flash, Judge Melissa Clarke ruled:

‘Damage caused by a lightning strike may well be an unexpected flight safety shortcoming, but that does not make it an exceptional circumstance. An unexpected flight safety shortcoming is only an exceptional circumstance if it is not inherent within the normal exercise of the carrier’s activity.’

While bad weather is not the airline’s fault, this ruling may mean if airlines aren’t able to put measures in place to deal with delays caused by bad weather they will have to compensate passengers for the loss of time.

Is the Civil Aviation Authority wrong?

Most surprising of all, Judge Clarke attacked the CAA’s list of extraordinary circumstances, which includes lightning strikes as an example. The judge declared the list had limited to no legal influence due to the long list of deletions and amendments forced upon it by court decisions.

The CAA’s view on what should be considered an extraordinary circumstance may well have been proven wrong in court on just too many occasions.

Although not a binding decision, the ruling could open the door to thousands of flight delay compensation claims for delays attributable to lightning strikes.

Is this compensation culture gone mad? Has the judge gone too far or is it fair that airlines are appropriately prepared for fairly common weather conditions?


On the face of it this a seems like a perverse judgement. Should every airline have enough spare aircraft at each airport they serve just in case there is an occurrence like this? Lighting strikes that cause damage are rare and I would not expect them to be regarded as events that an airline should be expected to deal with without delay.

I wonder whether this sort of judgement should be examined by others with more knowledge of the industry and its operational factors either before being pronounced. Was expert opinion sought? I imagine the airline concerned would appeal so that reason prevails.

Were this judgement to be extended all that will happen is airline costs will increase to cover the additional compensation paid. That will mean higher fares. I don’t suppose that bothers a judge, though.

“Edward J. Rupke, senior engineer at Lightning Technologies, Inc., (LTI) in Pittsfield, Mass., provides the following explanation:
It is estimated that on average, each airplane in the U.S. commercial fleet is struck lightly by lightning more than once each year. In fact, aircraft often trigger lightning when flying through a heavily charged region of a cloud. In these instances, the lightning flash originates at the airplane and extends away in opposite directions. Although record keeping is poor, smaller business and private airplanes are thought to be struck less frequently because of their small size and because they often can avoid weather that is conducive to lightning strikes.
The last confirmed commercial plane crash in the U.S. directly attributed to lightning occurred in 1967, when lightning caused a catastrophic fuel tank explosion. Since then, much has been learned about how lightning can affect airplanes. As a result, protection techniques have improved. Today, airplanes receive a rigorous set of lightning certification tests to verify the safety of their designs.” Scientific American article 2006

So not unexpected then. It strikes me that due to passenger nervousness the industry does not discuss it much though fatal damage is very rare.

I don’t think the judge was all wrong. It was a rare lightning strike on the particular occasion but it could have been any other incident or malfunction [like having to call the police to remove a disruptive passenger]. Airlines that have deliberately set their schedules on the basis of rapid turn-rounds and no emergencies are taking a risk in the event of delays for whatever cause. I am sure the industry could come up with a way of ensuring that a relief aircraft was available at major airports even if it had to be chartered from another operator. Passengers could also be transferred to other operators in some cases. Obviously, any of these measures would impact on fares such is the cut-throat competition among the tour operators and the ‘no frills’ carriers; air fares per kilometre are a fraction of land travel so I feel there is room for better contingency provision.

It amazes me that plane departures and arrivals still depend on having to file 250 people and their carry-ons through a single doorway which doesn’t help when timings are tight. Sometimes the rear doors are also used where mobile steps are available but not at airports where air-bridges are the only way on or off.

There is a culture in some industries of having such a long a list of exclusions that it might be simpler to say “there is no compensation at all for anything that goes wrong even when you think it’s our fault”.

You have to have a degree of sympathy for the airlines as what is still on the CAA list looks reasonable.
The judgement might be wrong or it may be that there were circumstances which the Judge took into account.

Essentially planes are flying Faraday cages and lightning is not dangerous to them. Of course there must be exceptions where damage does occur but that far rarer than an actual strike.

I am not comfortable with the idea that airlines might be tempted to take short-cuts on the safety inspection following a lightning strike in order to minimise delay compensation, or for pilots to not report strikes because they regard them as minimal and not potentially hazardous.

From the limited information we are given in the article, it seems that the judge was displeased with the CAA for not having taken sufficient heed of several adverse judgments by the courts that, overall and for a responsible regulator, would be expected to result in a comprehensive review of the exclusions list having regard to the courts’ decisions so that comparable circumstances are treated consistently.