FREQUENT fliers will be familiar with the notices at airports informing them of their compensation rights. In the event of a serious delay or cancellation of their flight. These rights were established in principle a few years ago by the European Union but in practice they have been more honoured in the breach than in the observation by airlines. The EU ruling said that compensation should be offered unless alternative travel arrangements were made or “extraordinary circumstances” existed. The definition of such circumstances by airlines is generally much broader - for instance to include a technical fault or staff shortages - than that of their passengers.

A recent appeal to the European Court of Justice produced a judgment that technical faults and similar operational difficulties were not “extraordinary circumstances” and that passengers who were inconvenienced by them should receive compensation. A report in The Times this week said that a Netherlands company, EUclaim, had succeeded in negotiating claims from British Airways on the basis of the Court's ruling which it believed would establish a precedent - perhaps even covering passengers affected by the Heathrow Terminal 5 fiasco last year. BA issued a statement saying that it had reviewed “a very small number of cases and agreed to settle their claims, without admitting liability.” There have been many false dawns before and in present economic circumstances the airlines will be particularly keen to avoid compensation payments if they possibly can.