A passenger checks the information of flight departures at Beijing's international airport, China Monday, April 19, 2010. Several thousand air passengers were stranded in Asia for days as flights were grounded because of a massive cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano that paralyzed European airports. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

London - A landmark ruling has opened the door for customers whose flights are delayed by over three hours to receive compensation payments.

In a ruling made earlier this week, a judge in Staffordshire implemented a decision made by the European Court of Justice last October that delays caused by airline failures merit compensation.

The judge awarded a former teacher and his wife £680 (R9 467) after their flight home from Tenerife with Thomas Cook was delayed by 22 hours.

Jeff and Joyce Halsall initially took their case to court in 2009, but a judge rejected their claim after Thomas Cook said the delay was due to circumstances beyond its control. In fact, the flight was delayed by a mechanical fault.

Jeff Halsall appealed against the decision after learning of the European legislation, which allows people to claim between £200 and £480 if they are delayed for more than three hours.

On Monday the couple won their case, with a judge at Stoke-on-Trent County Court awarding E800 (£680) in compensation and expenses incurred in pursuing the legal action.

Consumer groups have reacted with joy at the decision, saying it will ensure airlines treat their customers more fairly in future and end a culture of rejecting claims as a matter of course.

Although airlines will still be able to reject claims when delays are outside their control, for example during bad weather or strikes, travellers can now theoretically claim compensation for delays dating back to 2005.

Rough estimates suggest that, out of the 200 million passengers to use UK airports every year, roughly two million are delayed by over three hours. Out of these, an estimated 400 000 would be eligible for compensation.

In reaction to the payout, Thomas Cook said it had offered Halsall more money than the figure eventually awarded by the court.

A spokesman said: “We appreciate how frustrating flight delays can be and we’ve reiterated our apology to Mr Halsall for the lengthy wait he and his wife experienced.” – The Independent