Nobody wants to think about the possibility that of flight delays when they're travelling. However, one recent study found that in 2014, the total of all delays to flights to and from UK airports added up to 32 years and eight months. So it's important to know what will happen if your flight is running significantly behind schedule - and what your rights are.
The statistics show that each flight is delayed by an average of 40 minutes, but of course this hides the many extreme delays within the overall figures. Recently a family from Shropshire was stranded for 25 hours in JFK Airport in New York because of bad weather. During their nightmare, they were allowed to board a plane, which then sat on the runway for four hours before they were told to get off again. Nightmare.
What are the rules?
If your flight is delayed, a set of European Regulations - the Denied Boarding Regulation - sets out what you are entitled to (as long as you are either flying from an EU airport, into an EU airport, or on an EU-based airline). What the airline is required to provide depends on how far you are flying, and how long you are delayed for.
You are entitled to a meal every mealtime, regular refreshments, and two free emergency phone calls, faxes or emails once you have been delayed for a certain length of time. If you are going to have to stay for the night, it also has to provide free accommodation and transfers.
If the flight is under 932 miles, your rights kick in when it is delayed for at least two hours; if your flight is further than this, the airline has three hours before it has to start caring for your needs. If the plane is delayed for five hours or more (but not cancelled), you are entitled to cancel your journey and get a refund of the ticket price.
What if I can't get hold of anyone from the airline?
In practical terms, if you cannot get hold of anyone from the airline, then make sure you keep your expenses to a reasonable level, keep your receipts, and you can make a claim from the airline in writing when you get home (citing Article 9 of the EC regulation 251/2-4 which entitles you to accommodation, meals and transport, regardless of the reason for delay).
Usually airlines will accept reasonable costs, but if they reject them, you can complain to the Civil Aviation Authority and consider the small claims court - which doesn't have to be a particularly daunting or time-consuming process. It's worth pointing out that if you have had excessive costs, or abandoned the journey and tried to make your way home another way, you could struggle to get the airline to refund the money.
Do bear in mind that the airline has this duty to look after you, regardless of why you are delayed - and whether or not it was their fault.
Will I be entitled to compensation?
In some instances, you will also be entitled to compensation, but the situation is a bit complicated at the moment. The 2004 European regulations require airlines to pay compensation if flights are cancelled because of circumstances that the airline could have reasonably foreseen.
This compensation is substantial: 250 euros for inter-EU flights of 932 miles or less, 400 euros for flights between 932 and 2,175 miles, and 600 euros for longer journeys (as long as you are either flying from an EU airport, into an EU airport, or on an EU-based airline).
In 2009 the scope of this compensation increased dramatically, after a ruling by the European Court of Justice that passengers should be treated as though their flight had been cancelled if they are delayed for more than three hours (or more than four hours on the longest flights) - as long as the late running wasn't due to 'extraordinary circumstances'. This decision was highly controversial at the time, but was upheld by the ECJ in 2012, at which point a number of airlines started paying out.
What can I do?
Anyone who has been delayed for this length of time, and believes the circumstances are not exceptional, should put in a compensation claim to their airline - by informing the airline you wish to do so and telling them the flight number, the length of the delay, and the reason you were given for the delay. You should also explain that you are calling on your rights under the EU Denied Boarding Regulations 261/2004. You should include the sum to which you are entitled, and explain that you expect payment within 14 days. You'll need to send a copy of the ticket or booking confirmation too.
There are no limits within the regulations themselves as to how far back you can claim, but the statute of limitations in the UK is six years, so you will struggle to make a claim if it goes back any further than this. It's also worth bearing in mind that if you are close to the six years limit, the process of getting money out of the airline may take you over it if you get caught up in delays.
The bad news
There continues to be legal wrangling over what constitutes 'exceptional circumstances'. Certainly if your delay was caused by severe weather or geological events, then you will not receive compensation. Likewise political instability, security risks, and strikes fall within the definition of 'exceptional'.
The airlines are also trying to argue that some technical problems should be classed as 'exceptional circumstances', so they have rejected a number of claims on this basis. Other claims have gone through the courts, and the court has found in favour of the traveller, but five airlines have delayed payments because they are awaiting the outcome of a test case in the Netherlands challenging whether technical problems are exceptional (Jet2, Thomas Cook, Ryanair, FlyBe and WizzAir).
Last year two Supreme Court rulings found that airlines should still pay up where there had been a technical fault, and this was expected to kickstart compensation payments. In February, a case at Liverpool Crown Court concluded that payments could not be delayed again because: "A line should now be drawn. Justice delayed is justice denied."
An optimist would conclude that this is the final chapter of the legal saga, but although it sets a strong example, it doesn't set a legally-binding precedent, because it is only a county court decision. So there is a strong likelihood we haven't heard the last of this.
Should I bother to make a claim?
However, these wranglings shouldn't stop you from making a claim for compensation from your airline, and pushing your case if it is rejected because the delay was due to technical problems.
If it is rejected on these grounds, you need to write back to the airline, again including details of the flight and the length of the delay and the EU rights you are calling on. You need to add that while the previous letter rejected your claim saying the delay was due to 'exceptional circumstances', case law has shown that technical problems are not considered exceptional circumstances unless they are the type you wouldn't expect on a plane.
And to back up your argument you can cite the cases you are referring to: Wallentin-Hermann vs Alitalia in 2009 and Jet2 vs Huzar in 2014. Then reiterate the money due to you, and give them 14 days to pay.
The EC has actually produced an app explaining your rights on various modes of transport, which you can download here.