Flight Delays: Weather Disruption, Operational Mishaps & Exceptional Circumstances Explained

Flight delays can be one of the most frustrating experiences related to air travel. This blog post aims to shed light on the factors and circumstances contributing to flight delays in the UK airline industry. From weather-related issues to operational mishaps and exceptional circumstances, this guide will help you understand the reasons behind flight delays and who is liable when flights don’t go to plan.

Weather Disruption – UK weather is notoriously unpredictable, particularly during the winter months. Icy conditions, fog, and heavy snow can cause significant disruptions to air travel in the country. Airline operators cannot compromise on passenger safety. Hence, they are required to cancel or delay flights to avoid any potential hazards. Such weather-related issues can cause significant delays that can sometimes last days.

However, the weather is also the airlines’ favourite excuse to reject EU261 claims and refuse to provide alternative flights to passengers stranded by delays. We’ve seen plenty of cases where an airline has initially rejected a claim, citing “weather disruption”, when the real reason was operational or essentially a business decision not to run the flight. Indeed, some airlines will blame the weather when the aircraft has been delayed earlier in the day (due to a genuine weather issue) but is then late for subsequent flights later in the day as a result of running a very tight schedule.

A recent court ruling clarified the situation with regards to weather delays earlier in the day and it is clear that disruption to later flights operated by the same aircraft are not exempted from EU261 regulations. Therefore, passengers who are impacted are entitled to compensation under EU261.

The reason for this is that it’s essentially a business decision by the airline to maximise the number of sectors flown by aircraft each day, with tight turnaround times. It’s also a business decision not to have spare aircraft and crews available to step in when delays occur – aircraft and air crews are expensive so it’s often more cost effective to cancel and delay flights (and pay compensation when forced to), than absorb the costs of additional capacity, despite the negative impact on passengers. Add to this a well organised system of fobbing off passengers, making it hard to claim and routinely rejecting claims to try to minimise compensation costs. The airlines know that most people can’t be bothered to persevere with fight compensation claims after the initial rejection and many do not even try at all to claim the compensation or delays and cancellations that they are rightfully entitled to.

Operational Delays – Airline operations can be disrupted by an array of issues, ranging from technical problems with the aircraft to overbooking, strikes, and staff shortages. Mechanical issues, for example, can be caused by maintenance-related problems such as unexpected repairs, faulty parts, or other technical complications requiring additional testing and servicing. Furthermore, overbooking can result in denied boarding, causing significant delays. In these cases, the crew or airline staff will do their best to minimize the delay and rearrange flights whenever feasible.

In terms of compensation, under EU261 and UK261 operational issues are generally within the scope of the regulation where the issue is within the control of the airline – this includes technical issues with aircraft, baggage handling (even if this is sub-contracted to a third-party – that’s a business decision made by the airline), crew lateness or sickness are all covered and compensation should be paid to passengers affected.

Exceptional Circumstances – Unanticipated situations, such as medical emergencies, security threats, or air traffic control issues, can also contribute to flight delays. Even the occasional volcano erupting! Although these circumstances are rare, they can cause significant disruptions that may lead to extended waiting times and flight cancellations.

These issues are outside the control of the airline. When flights are cancelled as a result of air traffic control disruption, airport closure (weather, staffing, strike, security issues etc) and decisions made by the authorities to close air space or ground flights, these examples are all excluded from EU261 and compensation would not be payable to passengers affected. However, airlines still have a duty of care to their passengers in these circumstances which includes the provision of food and drink vouchers and assistance with rebooking or refunds in the event of disruption lasting more than 2 hours or cancellations.


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