• British Airways refused to pay a couple £220 compensation for a delayed flight

Airlines could have to pay millions in damages to customers after the Supreme Court ruled that staff illness is not an “extraordinary circumstance”.

Kenneth and Linda Lipton are taking British Airways to court after their flight from Milan landed in London two and a half hours late.

Their original flight was cancelled after a pilot became unwell shortly before the scheduled departure date in January 2018.

The airline refused to pay the couple £220 in compensation for the delay, saying the pilot’s illness was an unavoidable “extraordinary circumstance”.

The Supreme Court has now ruled in their favour, adding that while the amount was small, “the decision could potentially impact tens of thousands of claims”.

Airlines ordered to pay millions in damages to customers after Supreme Court rules staff illness not ‘extraordinary circumstances’ (stock image)

Travellers whose claims have been rejected in England and Wales in the past six years can now re-claim for compensation.

Passengers in Scotland can do this if their claim was made within the last five years.

Two courts previously upheld the company’s decision not to pay Lipton’s compensation.

But after the Court of Appeal ruled in the couple’s favor, the case was taken to the country’s highest court.

On Wednesday, five Supreme Court justices unanimously rejected the company’s appeal.

In their ruling, the judges also emphasised the intention of Regulation 261 to protect the rights of pilots and ‘ensure a high level of protection for consumers’.

The Supreme Court held that it “does not matter” when the pilot became ill, as the crew member remained an “inherent part of the airline’s business” even when not at work.

They added: ‘If the pilot drinks so much that he cannot work and the flight is cancelled, then the reason for the cancellation lies in the activities and operations of the airline.

‘The same applies to the need for the captain and other cabin crew to ensure they are adequately rested during stopovers.

‘They have numerous obligations during those periods, both to their employers and to the public.’

Although two courts previously upheld British Airways’ decision not to pay Kenneth and Linda Lipton £220 for their delayed flight after the pilot fell ill, the High Court has now ruled in the couple’s favour (stock image)

They also argued that staff illness could not be categorised as ‘exceptional’, as its meaning implies ‘something out of the ordinary’. According to them, sick employees do not fall under this category.

They added: ‘This is all inherent in the carrier’s business and operations and if, for whatever reason, they are unable to turn up for work as a result of something going wrong during rest periods, whether it is their fault or not, then their failure to turn up is not an extraordinary circumstance.’

Coby Benson, a lawyer at Bott and Co, told The Independent: ‘This decision is an important step forward in protecting the rights of air passengers.

‘Airlines must now take their responsibility seriously and ensure they have sufficient staff to prevent such disruptions. And if such disruptions do occur, they must compensate passengers appropriately.’

A British Airways spokesman said: “We are disappointed with this decision and respect the court’s ruling.”

MailOnline has asked Airlines UK for comment.