As UK airlines prepare for a wave of retrospective compensation claims by delayed passengers, some carriers have been accused of obstructing legitimate applications for long flight delays.
The European Court of Justice upheld a claim last year that a flight delay of three hours or more amounts to a cancellation under passenger rights legislation - known as EU261. Depending on the length of the flight, passengers may qualify for compensation of between â‚250 and â‚600.
The ruling has prompted a slew of claims from passengers angry at being stranded in departure lounges.
This week a judge in Staffordshire found in favour of a couple whose Thomas Cook flight from Tenerife in 2009 was delayed by 22 hours. Delayed journeys made up to six years ago may qualify for compensation under European legislation, but travel companies are making stipulations that appear intended to frustrate claims.
The standard claim form sent out by Britain's biggest tour operator, Thomson, insists it is "essential" for the passenger to provide the original flight tickets. Graeme Ward of Devon is seeking compensation for a six-hour delay on a Thomson Airways flight home from Madeira to Exeter three years ago. He said: "They are asking for the impossible. Who would keep old flights tickets for several years? This is just a ploy to avoid deserved compensation."
The Independent contacted Thomson, who said: "Confirmation letters/emails or credit card statements can suffice, especially if they are in conjunction with other supporting documents". Thomson described its process for delay claims as "fair and accurate".
Wendy Baylis flew on Thomas Cook Airlines from Palma to Manchester in September and was delayed by five hours. The judgement allowing claims for delays was handed down the following month. But when Mrs Baylis applied for compensation, Thomas Cook rejected the claim, saying: "Failing to complain within 28 days of return may reduce or extinguish any rights the guest has". The Independent contacted Thomas Cook on Mrs Baylis's behalf and was told: "On EU261 specifically, the requirement does not mean we will reject claims which are made more than 28 days after the customers' flights."
Airlines can avoid liability if they can demonstrate that the delay was due to "extraordinary circumstances" such as air-traffic control issues, poor weather and industrial action. But on Christmas Eve, Carol Garvey of south London was flying on easyJet from Gatwick to Paphos when the flight was diverted to Brussels because of a mechanical issue. The replacement plane was also faulty and a third jet was finally despatched to pick up the stranded passengers.
Ms Garvey said "All I was offered by the airline was a voucher entitling me to one checked bag and an assigned seat on my next easyJet flight". Under EU rules, the compensation due for a flight of that length is â‚400 but easyJet said: "Guidance from the CAA is that a fault discovered during the operation of the flight is considered extraordinary".