(File photo) Airline travellers queue at Frankfurt airport.

London - Families who have their holidays ruined by long flight delays will at last be able to claim compensation.

A landmark ruling has opened the floodgates for hundreds of thousands of claims, and could cost airlines millions.

It demonstrated that Britons have the right to compensation of up to £480, plus expenses, for hold-ups longer than three hours.

Last October the European Court of Justice ruled that delays caused by airline failures, such as technical faults or a lack of flight crew, merited compensation.

This week a judge in Staffordshire implemented that decision for the first time. He awarded a former teacher and his wife £680, after their flight home from Tenerife with Thomas Cook was delayed by 22 hours.

The decision is a major reversal for airlines, and consumer groups say it will ensure they treat travellers more fairly in future. Historically, critics say, the firms have rejected most claims as a matter of course.

Airlines will still be able to deny payouts where delays are outside their control, such as during bad weather or strikes. But, in theory, travellers can now claim compensation for flight delays dating back to 2005.

More than 200 million passengers use UK airports each year. Crude estimates suggest that two million of these are delayed for more than three hours, with at least 400,000 eligible for compensation.

The Staffordshire case relates to Jeff and Joyce Halsall, from Kidsgrove, who took Thomas Cook to court in 2009. A judge initially rejected the claim after the holiday company, which runs its own airline, said the delay was due to an ‘exceptional circumstance’ beyond its control.

In fact, the flight, on October 31, 2009, was delayed by a mechanical fault.

Mr Halsall, 58, 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 the case. A judge at Stoke-on-Trent County Court awarded 800 euros (£680) in compensation and expenses incurred in pursuing the legal action.

Mr Halsall, a retired economics and business teacher, said: ‘I am delighted to have won my legal case and I certainly hope passengers who were fobbed off over the past five years can now claim back what is owed to them.‘

‘It doesn’t matter how much people pay for their flight, everyone is entitled to this. People probably think they have to go to court to do this but they don’t, all they need to do is write to their airline.’

The Civil Aviation Authority said Mr Halsall’s legal victory appears to be the first in Britain since the European ruling.

Raymond Veldkamp runs a website called Flight Delayed, which helps travellers fight for compensation. He estimates that as many as two million suffer delays of more than three hours when using UK airports each year. If half of these were the airline’s fault, one million might be eligible for compensation. Even if that figure was only one in five, 400,000 would still be eligible.

Mr Veldkamp estimates £73million is owed to travellers across Europe for the past five years.

Catherine Beader, the Lib Dem MEP for South East England, said: ‘It is vitally important to raise awareness of this legislation because many simply do not realise they may be entitled to compensation.’

Thomas Cook said it had offered Mr 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. ‘We always look at claims such as this fairly and make every effort to resolve complaints without the need for a court hearing.’ - Daily Mail