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LONDON, Jan 31 AFP

February 01 2013, 08:07AM

Air passengers in Britain delayed for more than three hours because of a fault by the airline will be able to claim compensation following a landmark court ruling, aviation authorities say.

A court in Stoke-on-Trent in central England created a legal precedent that could open the floodgates for claims when it ordered airline Thomas Cook to pay a couple STG680 ($A1,039) for a 22-hour delay on a flight from Spain.

The court rejected the airline's argument that teacher Jeff Halsall and his wife Joyce were delayed on their return from the island of Tenerife to Britain in 2009 because of "exceptional circumstances" beyond its control.

The ruling, on Monday, was made possible because of a European Court Judgment in October, and many more passengers could now follow the Halsalls' lead.

In Britain, "it's the first time that the definition of exceptional circumstances has been challenged in the court", said a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

"This ruling has now allowed passengers to claim compensation when the delays are over three hours ... It creates a legal precedent."

The European court judgment in October allowed passengers to backdate their claims to 2005 when European Union (EU) legislation for compensation was first introduced.

Passengers on flights starting or ending in the EU are entitled to between 250 and 600 euros ($A328.13 and $A787.50 for delays of more than three hours, depending on the length of the flight, according to the CAA.

Airlines can still claim "exceptional circumstances" as a defence, which could include extreme weather conditions or strikes.

In a statement, Thomas Cook said it had originally offered the Halsalls compensation that was more than the figure the court finally awarded them.

"We appreciate how frustrating flight delays can be and we've reiterated our apology to Mr Halsall for the lengthy wait he and his wife experienced," a spokesman said.

"We always look at claims such as this fairly and make every effort to resolve complaints without the need for a court hearing."