Millions will be able to claim compensation after a judge rules airlines must pay when passengers encounter long delays due to technical faults with planes.

Airlines can currently avoid paying out if the jet has a mechanical or electrical problem by arguing it amounts to ‘extraordinary circumstances’ beyond their control. However, the Court of Appeal has now ruled this is not a proper defence.

The decision this week came after Ronald Huzar, 58, demanded compensation for a 27-hour delay that he and his family suffered on the way home to Manchester from a holiday in Malaga in October 2011. The airline said it did not have to pay because an unforeseeable technical problem had grounded the Boeing airliner and amounted to an ‘extraordinary circumsatnce’.

Richard Lloyd, executive director of consumer group Which?, said: ‘This ruling shows that airlines cannot avoid ducking their responsibilities by claiming that routine technical problems are extraordinary circumstances. Airlines must be transparent about the causes of delay and ensure that consumers have sufficient information to exercise their rights.’

In a three year legal battle Mr Huzar had argued he was entitled to compensation under European Union regulations after suffering ‘no little inconvenience’ when the flight to Manchester left a day late. Under the current compensation regime, which applies across the EU, travellers can make a claim if a flight has been delayed for at least three hours and the airline has no legitimate excuse.

Just how much they can claim depends on the length of the journey, rising from £201 per person on short haul flights to a maximum of £483. Statistics from the Civil Aviation Authority show that 19.6 million of holidaymakers may be eligible to claim large amounts of compensation dating back over the past six years.

Currently Article 5 (3) of EU Regulation EC 261/2004, which came into effect on the 18th of February 2005, establishes common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event that your flight is delayed, that you are denied boarding, or your flight is cancelled.

The compensation rules apply to any flight departing from an EU Airport or flying into the EU with an EU carrier. The rules provide passengers with certain guarantees — refreshments, phone calls, overnight accommodation and, if appropriate, damages.

An airlines can avoid paying compensation claims in an ‘extraordinary circumstance’. This includes ‘unforseeable’ events such as poor meteorlogical conditions, political instability, security risks, industrial action, and unforeseen flight safety shortcomings. But the defendant — in this case the airline — must prove their case.

The court ruled this defence did not apply in Mr Huzar’s case because such technical faults do not count as events beyond the airline’s control — unlike terrorism, strikes, air traffic control problems and freak weather. It dismissed the airline’s appeal against an earlier ruling at Stockport County Court. Jet2 says it plans to appeal the decision at the Supreme Court.

The ruling means a family of four taking a summer holiday to popular hot spots around the Mediterranean could be entitled to around £800 compensation if delayed for more than three hours by a technical fault that could not have been avoided.

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