It was the third excuse from the glassy-eyed airline staff at a packed boarding gate that caused something to snap inside the previously patient passengers.
Shortly before 9.30pm in a stuffy Gatwick departure lounge, travellers weary from a sweaty five-hour delay to their flight to Gran Canaria had just been told by Thomson staff they would finally take off.
But there was a snag: it would not be for another 11 hours.
Many of the cabin crew earmarked for the trip had just spent too many hours in the air to be able to fly, it emerged — and replacements weren’t available.
Worse, this bombshell landed after an earlier excuse that an ‘aeroplane with a technical fault’, had forced the new late-evening departure time.
At boiling point, families struggling with exhausted children — along with fellow travellers — began to shout and yell at the airline’s staff. Fraught and furious, some tried to push past barriers in a vain attempt to get on the aircraft at any cost.
Anxious at the growing melee, airport staff frantically called security in a bid to quell the crowd’s anger.
But the attempt to defuse the situation failed. The arrival of security guards prompted others to clamber onto the counter to avoid being pushed back — and get to the plane in a desperate yet fruitless move
Ina Harmer, her husband Paul and six-year-old daughter Emily had a ringside seat to the mayhem.
‘Everyone was frustrated, but being told that the airline hadn’t got the right number of crew available tipped people over the edge,’ she says. ‘The staff had to call in security because people were so desperate to get on the plane.
‘In the end, once things calmed down, we were put up in a hotel near the airport for the night. It was so awful for Emily, who was weary, miserable and exhausted. That morning, we’d told her all about the lovely hotel waiting for us and the sunny weather in Gran Canaria — so when we ended up in a nearby Gatwick hotel, barely half an hour from our home, she was distraught. She just didn’t understand what was going on.’
The fiasco, which took place in June 2010, meant the Harmers lost a day of their week-long holiday.
When they tried to claim compensation in the following weeks, Thomson said it would have to wait until the EU had drawn up a final ruling on payouts for delays.
That meant a two-year wait until last October when rules were passed that say passengers delayed for more than three hours are entitled to compensation of up to €600 (£516) per person, or £2,064 for a family of four.
However, the Harmers have also had to spend the past ten months battling Thomson, which still refuses to pay up.
The company claims the delay was caused by a technical fault, which it could not have prevented — releasing it from any responsibility to pay. The Harmers refuse to accept this and are taking their complaint to court.
Mrs Harmer says: ‘The delay was awful, but how we’ve been treated since is even worse. I’ll never use Thomson again. We’ve been fobbed off at every turn and made to jump through hoops in the hope we’ll just go away.'
‘They have demanded boarding passes from three years ago as proof of our flight and even claimed it has had no record of us being on it! But we won’t give up.’
Their sentiment is being shared by thousands more holidaymakers, including many returning from overseas trips this summer, who are battling to get compensation after experiencing a delay of more than three hours.
Every day, more than 100 disgruntled travellers lodge an official complaint, according to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
A record 20,000 are expected to take an airline to the authorities this year, it estimates — compared with just 3,200 last year.
Many of these complaints date back as far as six years.
All have been spurred on by the new EU law on compensation for delays of more than three hours.
They have also been given impetus by two recent court cases, which have seen holidaymakers successfully win compensation for delays from travel agent Thomas Cook — which runs a fleet of aircraft — and airline Monarch.
But despite the new law, many airlines are trying to avoid paying out.
They are exploiting a loophole in the rules that states that if the delay is caused by an ‘extraordinary circumstance’ outside the airline’s control, they don’t have to cough up.
Frequently, airlines won’t give an explanation to passengers of exactly what has happened but refer instead to something vague such as a ‘technical fault’.
You may be told the airline could do nothing about it but, in reality, the setback can be of the airline’s own making.
Working out who’s right and who’s telling the truth is proving a major headache for holidaymakers — and leaving many confused.
Figures from consumer campaign group Flight-Delayed reveal only one in ten delayed passengers who complain to the airline are awarded compensation.
Yet the CAA says it rules in favour of the passenger in around half of all cases it subsequently sees.
Now, fed up at the airlines’ stubbornness and consumer confusion, the EU has had to publish new guidelines less than a year after introducing the original law.
If you’re just back from a trip abroad and have experienced a delay or are about to set off on an end-of-summer break, here’s where you stand . . .
Why have the rules been revamped?
Five weeks ago, regulators in Europe attempted to clarify once and for all what counts as an ‘extraordinary circumstance’ — something that lets the airline off the hook from a payout if you’re delayed.
Critically, blaming a lack of flight-worthy crew for a delay will no longer let airlines wriggle out of compensation. So, too, must they pay out when maintenance checks over-run, or technical issues hold back take-off because of poor overall service levels. From examples seen by Flight-Delayed, this means if shoddy maintenance has led to a broken bulb in the emergency floor lights or a blocked toilet being overlooked until the last minute — which causes a delay — the airline won’t be allowed to call it a ‘technical fault’ or ‘extraordinary circumstance’.
And if an airline is late because it failed to get the right paperwork in order or an inspection by an outside safety body finds a technical problem, it also has to pay passengers.
There is now a list of 30 examples of an ‘extraordinary circumstance’ when an airline is not at fault and, therefore, does not have to provide compensation.
These include obvious examples such as civil unrest, strikes, terrorism threats, natural disasters and bad weather.
They also include if a bird strikes the aircraft or a poorly driven airport vehicle collides with the plane.
And if an engine part fails before it is due to be replaced, then the airline doesn’t have to pay up.
So will all cases now be paid in full?
It’s unlikely because many of the 30 extraordinary circumstances are too vague.
For example, it allows an airline off the hook if it encounters a technical defect ‘immediately prior to departure’.
But what does ‘immediately prior’ mean? Ten minutes, 30 minutes or an hour? It’s likely to be a horribly contested grey area.
Raymond Veldkamp, founder of Flight-Delayed, which investigates claims, is concerned the new guidelines do not go far enough.
He says: ‘It’s a step forward, but airlines will still be able to get around them. To a passenger, the word ‘immediately’ might mean five minutes, but to an airline, it could be three hours. They still have too much room for manoeuvre.’
Similar confusion is likely to arise over just what counts as a poor standard of maintenance service.
Who decides what is and what isn’t acceptable? And how can it be proved that what is said to have happened actually took place?
It could end up with the CAA’s word against an airline’s, and a contested service report.
The lack of an independent body to oversee this is likely to cause further problems.
What's scuppering so many valid claims?
Airlines don’t want to dig deep for expensive compensation claims.
The rise of budget airlines also means that, in many cases, the sums awarded in compensation are greater than the cost of the flight.
As a result, experts fear passengers will continue to be fobbed off despite the new rules.
Getting to the truth of what really happened is also tricky.
Airlines can say one thing without yet knowing what has actually happened, further muddying the waters.
An airline may also tell you the delay is down to a technical problem, but not know if it’s one that will result in them paying up — hence the vagueness of their responses.
Hardly any passengers have the knowledge or experience to know what the problem actually is, or to be able to corroborate it.
There is also confusion over how far back you can claim. All airlines have been told by regulators to deal with claims from up to six years ago, in line with UK court rulings.
But, so far, Thomson has refused to play ball.
Instead, it is refusing to look at claims older than two years, and that includes the Harmer family, despite their making a first complaint in 2010.
A spokesperson for Thomson says: ‘The law in this area is complex and many situations will not result in an entitlement to compensation.’
It means Thomson passengers who fail to bring their claims within two years will have to take their case to a small claims court.
The EU has also ruled that — in a bid to ease some of the pressure on the CAA — using the new rules, airlines have to look again at complaints they have previously rejected. This is holding up claims and adding to frustrations.
Not having enough clear information on how to make a valid claim for delayed flight compensation is also a major problem.
A spokesperson for the CAA says: ‘It’s vital for airlines to give passengers more detailed explanations of exactly what caused the delay and the steps they took to prevent it. To help customers, they can’t just say there was a technical fault, which is what we’ve seen in the past. They need a clearer explanation.’
How much money can you get back?
Under EU law, you are entitled to compensation for flight delays. To qualify, you must be delayed for more than three hours before landing at your destination, and either travelling from an EU airport or on an EU airline.
So delayed passengers due to fly into Heathrow from New York on a BA aircraft would be able to claim; but those on American Airlines wouldn’t.
How much you get depends on how long you are delayed and how far you are travelling (see table above).
For example, if you’re flying from London to Paris and are delayed for three hours you can claim €250 (£215).
To get the maximum €600 (£516), you need to be travelling more than 3,500 km and be delayed for four hours or more.
The EU is in talks over whether to alter the amount of compensation you get for different-length delays, but any changes are unlikely before 2015.
Remember, if you are delayed, your airline is obligated to care for you regardless of whether you are entitled to compensation or not. This means providing you with vouchers for food and drink and putting you up in a hotel if you are delayed overnight.
How do I get my compensation?
From the minute you’re held up by more than three hours at a UK airport, start collecting evidence.
Note down what airline staff tell you about why you’re delayed, the time it is said and any later changes to this if they occur. Keep hold of any letters or information leaflets staff may hand out.In the last resort, if the airline still refuses to pay, you can take it to a small claims court.
Then, when you return from your holiday, complain to the airline citing the EU Regulation 261/2004, and explain you are writing to request compensation.
Include your name, booking reference, flight number, when you were travelling and the flight length.
You should also include any boarding passes, receipts and confirmation emails you have.
If your airline rejects your claim, you can then lodge a complaint with the CAA by phoning 020 7379 7311, visiting its website at caa.co.uk or writing to CAA House, 49-55 Kingsway, London WC2B 6TE.
It will investigate whether it thinks you have grounds to make a claim.
However, when an airline performs a U-turn and pays out, it does not have to contact everyone else on the flight who should also have received compensation.
Others may already have made a successful claim, so don’t delay.
The CAA says it will deal with complaints dating back to 2007 (although, with Thomson, passengers face a court action if it’s more than two years ago).
It can’t force the airline to pay out, but it can strongly recommend that it looks again at your case.
If the delay happened outside the UK, you must take your complaint to the equivalent authority for that country — not the CAA. For example, if you are delayed in Spain, you will have to contact the Agencia Española de Seguridad Aérea (AESA); or from France, the Direction Generale de l’Aviation Civile. The CAA will be able to help you with contact details.
And watch out even when you are successful: some airlines are trying to pay compensation in vouchers for further flights. However, the CAA says you can reject this as you are entitled to cash.
Some airlines also encourage passengers to make a claim on their travel insurance for delays.
But most insurers will cover only the food and accommodation expenses incurred — which are covered by your airline anyway — and only stump up for long delays.
[Source - http://www.dailymail.co.uk/money/holidays/article-2403199/Why-claim-compensation-holiday-planes-delayed-blocked-loo--hit-bird.html]