British Airways has lost a High Court case over passenger rights to compensation, leaving the airline open to millions of pounds in claims that were previously dismissed as so-called ‘extraordinary circumstances’.

The case dates back to 2018, when the Liptons were delayed on their return journey to London. Their British Airways CityFlyer flight from Milan was cancelled after the captain fell ill hours before departure.

The couple made a claim under EU air passenger rights law, known as EC/261, for a total of £440, but British Airways immediately rejected the claim, arguing that the pilot’s illness during the flight was an “extraordinary circumstance” beyond British Airways’ control.

There are not many ways for airlines to avoid paying compensation for flights that are significantly delayed or cancelled. However, an extraordinary circumstance beyond the airline’s control is the only legally acceptable way for airlines to avoid paying compensation.

The problem is that there is a lot of debate about what constitutes an extraordinary circumstance. Often it is left to the courts to determine what does and does not constitute an extraordinary circumstance.

When the Liptons were first rejected by British Airways, they took the airline to court, but a district court ultimately sided with BA. Despite this, the Liptons appealed the verdict and won their case in a higher court.

British Airways itself appealed and the case eventually reached Britain’s highest court, where a panel of three judges had the final say on the matter.

On Wednesday, the verdict was finally announced and all three judges ruled in favor of the Liptons.

In his judgment, Lord Justice Coulson compared staff illness to occasional mechanical delays, which have long been established as not constituting exceptional circumstances.

“The wear and tear of the aircraft and its parts is not exceptional; the wear and tear of people, manifested in occasional illness, should not be regarded as anything different,” wrote Lord Justice Coulson.

BA’s lawyer had tried to argue that the case should have been treated differently because the pilot had fallen ill while off work, but this argument was completely rejected by the judges.

In short, pilots and cabin crew are an inherent part of an airline’s operation and it is expected that people will occasionally get sick. Therefore, it is up to airlines to ensure that they have sufficient staff to deal with illnesses, because that is the nature of their business.

However, if they fail to adequately manage their resources, be it a machine or a worker, then they are liable for compensation.

Of course, the UK no longer has EC/261 after leaving the European Union, but regulators have passed similar legislation, so BA still has to pay compensation for staff absences due to illness.

The ruling could have major implications for BA and other airlines that have in the past rejected claims for compensation for delays due to staff illness.

In general, extreme weather conditions and terrorist attacks are certainly considered “extraordinary circumstances,” while mechanical problems, whether or not they are the airline’s fault, are not.

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Mateusz Maszczynski

Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant for the Middle East’s leading airline and has flown for a well-known European airline during the COVID-19 pandemic. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric storytelling. Always with his ear to the ground, Matt’s insights, analysis and industry news reporting are frequently referenced by some of the biggest names in journalism.