Dubai: UAE-based carriers are now entangled in a dispute over whether or not airlines are legally bound to pay passengers if they encounter flight delays.

The United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) claimed that American, Emirates, Etihad, Singapore and Turkish Airlines are liable under European rules to compensate thousands of their passengers for flight disruptions.

The European law specifies that long-haul flight passengers are entitled to receive 300 euros ($316) if their flights are delayed for three to four hours, or 600 euros ($632) if their journey encounters more than four hours of delay. The CAA’s complaint data shows that the most complained about airline for non-payment of compensation for connecting flights was Emirates.

“Under the (European Commission Regulation EC261/2004 ), passengers are legally entitled to compensation if they arrive at their final destination more than three hours late,” the CAA said, adding that the rights apply to any airliner leaving an airport in the European Union, regardless of its nationality.

“The CAA estimates that over 200,000 passengers each year travelling on these airlines  could be at risk of missing their onward connection and thereby being delayed by over three hours at their final destination.”

Emirates vehemently denied the claims and hit back at the aviation watchdog for being “misleading and unprofessional” in the way it has communicated the issue. The Dubai-based carrier also vowed to "rigorously" defend its position against the blanket application of the European law.

A spokesperson for the airline clarified that that the application of the law to Emirates flights from the UK involving a stopover in Dubai is currently pending before the UK Court of Appeal. The airline pointed out that while they ensure their passengers are taken care of during flight disruptions, there are many incidents that are simply beyond its control.

“We will rigorously defend our position, and challenge the blanket application of EC 261 to every situation, without consideration of context or the safety of our passengers. Emirates, like any responsible airline, puts the safety of our passengers first and to be penalised for this is absurd,” the airline said in a statement sent to Gulf News.

“The safety of our passengers and crew always comes first, and many flight delays are caused by factors that are beyond our control and which are not the airline’s responsibility – such as inclement weather, bird strikes and airport closures.”

Etihad Airways had also said that publicly blaming the airline for infringements to passengers’ rights before the issue is even resolved is “wholly unprofessional and unacceptable.”

“We take such matters very seriously and in no way look to breach the law. Therefore, before even completing the dialogue, we find the CAA’s approach wholly unprofessional and unacceptable’ to publicly blame Etihad Airways for infringements to passengers’ rights which we unreservedly deny,” the spokesperson said.

The CAA had said it will take an enforcement action against the airlines after a comprehensive review of the carriers’ policies over flight delays showed that they had breached consumer law.

“The airlines confirmed to the CAA they do not pay compensation to passengers who had experienced a delay on the first leg of a flight that cause them to miss a connecting flight and, as a result, to arrive at their final destination over three hours late. The airlines’ refusal to pay compensation in these instances fails to meet the legal passenger rights requirements for flight disruption.”

The review looked at the different policies of the top 31 airlines operating in the UK, focusing on care and assistance during disruption, compensation for missed connections, denied boarding (when passengers are bumped off from their original flights) and downgrading (when passengers are downgraded to a lower seat class).

Richard Moriarty, director of consumers and markets at the CAA, noted that flight delays have a “particularly damaging effect on people’s travel plans.”

“That’s why there are clear laws in place to make sure passengers that experience this type of disruption are looked after by their airline and compensated when the disruption was in the airline’s control.”

For more information on passenger rights during flight disruptions, click here.

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