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?