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Are some airline passengers more equal than others? Should compensation for delayed flights be worth more for husbands than it is for wives? The battle to obtain recompense from airlines is becoming so difficult and long-winded, only the most persistent passengers will succeed.

Imagine two couples on a Christmas mini-break. They have spent four wonderful days together in a luxury hotel in New York to celebrate the birthdays of both of the wives. Now they are on their way home.

It is December 20. The four travellers arrive at JFK airport to catch flight BA 0114 to Heathrow. They are told that their flight has been delayed by an hour. They wait. It is continually delayed by another hour, and then cancelled. They are put up in a modest hotel and told to return the next day. They do so; in the end, their plane takes off about 24 hours late. They are not worried. Deep down, they know they will be entitled to compensation for the delay.

Under EU legislation, passengers who are delayed by three hours or more on flights to or from an EU airport (or on an EU airline) can get compensation.

The man who booked the flights, Simon Stretch, a long-time FT Money reader, applied on December 27 for the €600 compensation due to him. The system worked. Two days later, he received confirmation that he would be paid £507.89 plus £165 in out-of-pocket expenses. The EU law (number 261/2004) had worked. For him.

The other three travellers were not so lucky. All applied about the same time. When Simon’s wife received her response, she was told that she was ineligible for compensation because a “valve was missing on the aircraft”. This constituted “extraordinary circumstances” that were not the responsibility of BA. The other couple were also told their delay had been caused by “extraordinary circumstances.”

Simon’s wife applied for the compensation three times until BA stopped responding. Her husband decided to mount a guerrilla campaign. He took to Twitter to get a response. BA phoned back. It was not prepared to discuss the claim; Simon’s wife should take her claim to the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (Cedr), which would cost her £25 if her claim was rejected again. Several legal firms tweeted that they would take on her claim in return for a share of the compensation.

At this point Simon, lost patience. He contacted FT Money to ask for clarity about the way EU legislation on airline compensation was being applied. About the same time, the other couple received an email admitting liability for the husband’s journey. BA offered him €600, but again refused any compensation for his wife. Was gender discrimination at work here?

I took up their case. Within three hours of emailing the BA press office, the two wives received emails from BA stating that it was sorry that they were not happy with the previous response and that after investigation: “I can see you are due £507.89 compensation for the delay on your flight from New York, JFK on December 20. I can understand how frustrating this delay will have been for you and I apologise for this. I also appreciate how annoying it will have been to be incorrectly told you aren’t due compensation . . .”

BA told FT Money that when a flight is cancelled, the person who made this decision had to stipulate why. If the customer services agent “interpreted” the reason as valid, compensation would be paid. On this occasion, its agents had “interpreted” the wives’ reasons for the flight cancellation differently from the reasons given to their husbands on the same flight.

BA said: “Our team recently classified this flight as payable in terms of EU compensation, and we are now in the process of contacting and making payments to members of the group that haven’t yet received compensation.”

But BA could not say how many people were on the flight, nor how many had received compensation. Those who have not claimed could still do so as there is no time limit. Anyone who has suffered a delay on a flight since 2011 can still make a claim under the EU law, if they have not done so already.

This was the second time Simon had claimed compensation. Last summer, when he came back from holiday in Thessaloniki with EasyJet, the plane arrived at Gatwick a little over three hours late. The cabin crew told everyone on board to claim for compensation and handed out forms. Within days, the airline agreed to pay £340 to Simon and his wife.

Research by indicates that most passengers who feel they have a legitimate claim for a delay do not get a refund first time — but those who persist win in the end. Figures for easyJet indicate that 18 per cent (987) of passengers who claimed were paid straight away, another 209 won after appeal, 676 did not appeal and 3,416 were still pursuing their claims. Only 2 per cent lost after appeal.

For BA, around 30 per cent (1,580) of passengers were successful first time. There were 196 who won after making an appeal, 557 who did not appeal, and 2,241 who were still pursuing claims. Only 85 passengers lost after appeal.

Much of the quibbling surrounds whether flight delays have really been longer than three hours. Even if your plane takes off three hours late, it's the landing time that counts (so if the pilot makes up time en route, you may lose your right to compensation).

Passengers should be aware that the clock stops when the first door is opened and not when the wheels touchdown. This means that all the taxiing and waiting for the steps to be put in place counts as part of your journey time. In my experience, airlines can — and do — argue that flights landed earlier than claimed. Passengers would be wise to save screenshots of actual arrival times on airport websites from their smartphones (some websites also display the cause of the delay).

However, airlines do not have to pay compensation if a delay or cancellation is “beyond their control”. Weather is the main reason for such delays, or air traffic disputes. But if the crew or pilot turns up late, a flight is cancelled because of under-booking, or there is a routine technical problem, the airline should pay. Until a European Court of Justice ruling in September 2015, many airlines argued that technical problems were not their responsibility.

The compensation starts at €300 for three-hour delays on European flights and rises to €600 per paying passenger for long-haul flights. Children who have a paid-for seat qualify for the full amount. Even where the delay is not the responsibility of the airline, they should still pay for meals at the airport and other costs incurred (such as taxis to hotels).

While about 20 per cent of claimants get compensation with one communication, the rest have to appeal. Thus, a whole compensation industry has grown up to counter the tactics of airlines. Lawyers and compensation agents offer to work on a “no-win, no-fee” basis. These organisations usually charge 25 per cent of the compensation received — regardless of whether they have battled for weeks, or obtained instant success.

Airlines can and do change the reason for delay or cancellation. What starts out as staff shortages can become “adverse weather conditions” because the weather stopped the crew arriving at the airport. This is frustrating.

The moral is: don’t give up. Many claims are won on appeal. And don’t forget to share news of your successes — it can only encourage others to persist.

Lindsay Cook is co-founder of consumer website and co-author of “Money Fight Club: Saving Money One Punch at a Time,” published by Harriman House

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