Mark Leftly: Air passengers need MPs to leave the transit lounge and seek compensation


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Westminster Outlook The final signs of life have drained out of this greying, decaying corpse of a parliament. Any vigour and colour is now on the road, as Harriet Harman tries to get out Labour’s female vote by visiting marginal constituencies in her pink/magenta battle-bus/minibus.

With less than three months to polling day, it’s too late to expect backbench MPs, who are largely exhausted by half a decade in either unhappy coalition or frustrating opposition, to launch a new inquiry.

But on the morning of 8 May, those sitting on the Transport Select Committee should immediately investigate the compensation culture – or lack of – on airlines. Just nine of these companies, including British Airways, easyJet and Virgin Atlantic, could owe holidaymakers and business flyers more than £220m in compensation for delays of more than three hours in 2014 alone, according to Adeline Noorderhaven, the manager of EU Claim.

Now it’s in Ms Noorderhaven’s interests to flag up these statistics because her company is in the business of getting passengers up to €600 in compensation (£440 at the current exchange rate) for these delays. But the statistics do exclude what are described as “extraordinary circumstances” – extreme weather, strikes, political instability and the like – when airlines can refuse to pay up.

The figures suggest there were approaching 5,000 flights where the airlines could be considered liable for a delay of at least three hours. That means there were getting on for 900,000 passengers who could claim compensation – but only about 12 per cent of people typically do so, according to Ms Noorderhaven.

Yet the success rate is high and some airlines, such as BA, are better than others at paying out. But the way in which EU Claim has calculated these figures means that delays down to technical faults, such as wiring defects, are included – even though many airlines have historically labelled these as an exceptional circumstance.

The law was seemingly cleared up last year, when the Supreme Court refused to allow Thomson Airways and Jet2, the low-cost carrier, to appeal against two rulings that in effect made them liable for technical faults.

While Thomson has accepted this defeat, Jet2 and three other airlines, including Ryanair, have clung on to another long-running and continuing court case on the Continent in the hope that this will eventually uphold their defence, as revealed by The Independent on Sunday last weekend.

A separate case will be heard in Liverpool soon and that will decide whether these airlines can continue to delay compensation while they wait for the European fight to unfold. But, such are the complexities and vagaries of our legal system, this could also be subject to appeal in the event of defeat.

To be fair to the airlines, there is no guarantee that all those claims would be upheld even without this battle of semantics. Ryanair, for example,  explains that it assesses claims “on a case-by-case basis”.

Additionally, there is the inevitable issue that a surge in successful compensation claims will be passed on to passengers anyway in the form of higher fares.

However, this feels like an issue that has gone on for far too long, been under-explored and would be a ripe for examination by a committee that has been willing to highlight so many under-reported transport issues in recent years, from cable theft on the railways to the difficulties facing small airports.

At the very least, then, a high-profile inquiry would alert many passengers to the fact that they could qualify for compensation.

With a bit of luck, forcing an inquiry on doing the right thing could help breathe some life into the Palace of Westminster in the early days of the next parliament.