Delays at the airport caused us to miss our flight. Can we file a complaint?

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Running for a robbery is a staple of many movies. Until this year, such scenes happened because they did not arrive on time at the airport. Passengers who didn’t leave early enough or didn’t account for traffic delays have only themselves to blame. But there are other scenarios, such as problems with public transport, traffic accidents, car breakdown or extreme weather conditions, where the passenger is beyond reproach.

We now have the new situation of delays at the airport itself, which we are told are the result of understaffing. In your case, this led to missing a flight, so I can understand why you think the resulting losses are not your fault.

First and foremost, check your travel insurance. If he provides cover for a missed flight, the usual rule is that he must pay if the delay is not your fault. That said, coverage for a missed flight is not a standard travel insurance risk and not all policies include it.

Also check if your policy covers additional costs such as accommodation, for example an overnight stay in an airport hotel to enable you to catch a flight the next day.

If you cannot claim insurance, we need to think about your legal relationship with the airport. You may think that the airport provides you with a service and that you are a customer of the airport. However, as an airline passenger, you have no direct contractual relationship with the airport.

Lawyers call a direct relationship between two parties “privilege.” Examples are a landlord and a tenant or a merchant and a customer. You have no connection with the airport – you are not there because you have a direct contract with the airport to use its services but because you have purchased a plane ticket or a holiday package.

It is the airline or tour operator that provides the services to its customers. This means you cannot sue the airport for breach of contract or its failure to act with “reasonable care and skill” under consumer rights law.

The legal question is whether we can somehow say that the airport still owed you a duty of care to perform its services in a timely manner and not cause you financial loss. After all, if you were injured by part of the airport building falling on you from lack of maintenance, you would expect to be able to sue. And we can draw a parallel with that.

You can sue an airport for personal injury if they were negligent, because the airport has a duty to you in “tort”. Tort is the legal principle that we all have a duty to one another and that when a wrongful act by one party causes injury or loss to another party, there should be a remedy.

Here in Britain tort liability is sophisticated and the duty of care it imposes is broad. To the best of my knowledge, the loss resulting from a missed flight due to acts or omissions on the part of an airport has not been found by a court to be a breach of duty of care, but it doesn’t mean your case can’t be the first test case.

Courts will determine that a legal duty of care exists beyond a strict contractual relationship if three criteria are met:

  • The harm must be a reasonably foreseeable result of the conduct. Here I would say that check-in or security delays resulting in missed flights are a reasonably foreseeable consequence of staffing shortages.
  • There must be a “close” relationship between the parties. Here you had no choice but to go through the usual airport protocol, so I don’t see what could be closer.
  • It must be “just and reasonable” to impose liability, which means that the conduct of the parties will be relevant. For example, you arrived on time and airports are reported to be understaffed.

Establishing a duty of care and breaching it are the first steps in establishing negligence. The next step is to show the actual damage, which for you was buying replacement flights and staying overnight at the airport hotel, and showing ‘causality’ – that the delays at the airport caused the damage or loss.

First send a complaint letter to the airport. After that, the place to make a legal claim is the county court small claims route, which in England and Wales is for claims under £10,000. This is called the Simple Procedure in Scotland for claims under £5,000. The limit in Northern Ireland is £3,000.


Ask a lawyer is written by Gary Rycroft, attorney at Joseph A Jones & Co, and published twice a month on Mondays. Send your questions to askalawyer@telegraph.co.uk

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