Air India has successfully defended itself against a compensation claim after a UK judge ruled that a delay to a flight operating one leg of a multi-stop journey could not be considered separate from the journey as a whole.

The passenger claiming compensation had flown from Kansas City to Bengaluru – via Detroit, London Heathrow and Mumbai – in May 2019.

This involved connecting from Delta Air Lines to Air India at Heathrow. But the Air India flight from Heathrow was badly delayed, departing 48h late to Mumbai.

Initially a district judge ruled in favour of the passenger, on the basis that the Air India flight from the UK was separate from the inbound services operated by Delta, and should be subject to compensation under European Union rules.

At the time the UK was still in the ‘Brexit’ transition process of withdrawing from the EU and still following EU regulations.

Air India appealed this decision and a UK Court of Appeal hearing took place in November.

Air India 777 Heathrow-c-Heathrow Airport

Source: Heathrow Airport

Judges ruled the delayed Air India flight from Heathrow could not be separated from the whole journey

Central to the hearing was a previous ruling involving a Royal Air Maroc flight from Berlin to Agadir via Casablanca, the second leg of which was delayed.

Even though the flight was operated by a non-EU carrier, and the delayed Casablanca-Agadir leg was entirely outside the EU, judges of the European Court of Justice ruled in May 2018 that the journey should be considered as a whole under a single booking – and that compensation was due because the journey began in the EU.

Air India’s representatives argued, during the appeal hearing, that if an airline could not avoid liability because the journey – considered as a whole – involved departing the EU, it could similarly not bear liability if this whole journey, from Kansas City to Bengaluru, did not start or end in the EU.

The appeal court judge agreed with this principle.

“If an air carrier cannot differentiate between the different legs of a single booking in order to avoid paying compensation, a passenger cannot differentiate between the different legs so as to claim compensation which would not otherwise be due,” the judgement states.

Air India says it has “prevented a serious blow” to the airline industry.

“What is significant about this decision is that this is one of the first cases where the Court of Appeal has been asked to determine EU law post-Brexit,” says Daniel Powell of Air India’s solicitor, Zaiwalla & Co.

“The intention of [European Court of Justice] judges when making their decisions was discussed at the hearing, and the Court of Appeal chose to not interpret these principles differently in the post-Brexit era.”

Powell says that, if Air India had lost the appeal, other carriers could have expected “myriad further claims against them”, at a time when they are suffering economically as a result of the pandemic.