When Richard Watson arrived back at Gatwick 13 hours late after a holiday in Dubai he immediately applied for compensation from the airline, browsing the internet for advice to check that he was eligible. One of the first links on the Google search page was Flight Delay Claims Team (FDCT) based in Northampton, which offers to manage airline compensation claims on a no-win, no-fee basis. The website states that a claim can be submitted online in three minutes and the average payout is €400 per passenger.
“I thought the company would check if I was eligible and then act on my behalf if I wanted them to,” he says. “I supplied my details via the web form, but heard nothing until three months later when they sent me a reminder of an invoice I had never received demanding £400.”
This summer thousands of airline passengers will have been stuck at airports awaiting delayed flights. Many will be entitled to claim statutory compensation under EU rules, but some of those who do so run the risk of being ripped off by firms offering to help.
Watson, from Essex, queried why he was being billed and was told that by submitting the web form he had contracted FDCT to act on his behalf. He says when he asked what services had been rendered he was merely told to pay up. Within two weeks the demand had risen to £540.
John Troelson of Hereford and Suzanne Burdett of Coventry also submitted what they thought were enquiries to FDCT after their respective flights were delayed. Troelson heard nothing back and opted to make a claim through another firm.
But nearly a month later he opened a letter from Butterworths solicitors saying it had been instructed by FDCT and asking him to sign papers. He says he signed nothing but soon received a reminder from FDCT to pay a £297.01 invoice he had never received. He’s now being chased for £334.08.
“All I did was go on the website to see what that company had to offer,” he says. “I never instructed them or signed any documents sent by them or their legal team.”
Burdett’s experience appears identical. She is now being threatened with court action unless she pays £437. “I have rung and mailed repeatedly to discuss what it’s for,” she says. “All calls to their office are fruitless – there’s ‘no one available’ or they are ‘in a meeting’ and any emails are just replied to with a demand for the cash.”
Two other readers have contacted the Observer with the same story and a number have posted similar experiences on the review website yell.com. All say they were unaware that they had entered a binding contract with FDCT and, although the website states that no fees are payable if a claim is unsuccessful, none of those charged three-figure sums has received the statutory compensation via the company.
The only clue that a submitted web form is a contractual commitment is hidden in the terms and conditions which claimants are supposed to have read before sending their details. These run to several pages, yet the website maintains a claim takes three minutes to submit.
FDCT, registered as E.Asthampton Ltd, is run by three members of the Ryan family from the same address in Northampton. Director Naomi Ryan told the Observer that the company had provided many customers with an “effective and successful service” and its charges hadbeen met “without question”, although she would not specify how many claims it had won. She declined to comment on individual complaints, but all the complainants contacted by us have now been told that they do not owe anything because FDCT accepts they never received a confirmation notice of their contract as required by the Consumer Contracts Regulations.
“We recently became aware there may have been an issue with the sequence and format of our website and so contacted Trading Standards for their advice,” she said. “As a result, changes to the way we treat the information we receive from the initial web form have now been introduced, along with changes in the way we present our pre-contract information to the consumer.”
She failed to explain what these changes were, or why customers were being pursued for payment without receiving promised compensation.
Butterworths, the solicitors subcontracted to pursue claims, declines to say how many cases it has successfully handled on behalf of FDCT, but says it is “reviewing its relationship” with the company. Northampton trading standards told the Observer that it was investigating a number of complaints.
Since 2014, when the supreme court ruled that passengers can claim for flight delays, a number of claims firms have sprung up to profit from the action. Some pocket more than 40% of any payout in fees, although they have no special powers to pursue claims and passengers can put in a claim themselves with the airline for free.
Extraordinarily, although claims management firms specialising in financial services, personal injury or employment have to be authorised and regulated by the Ministry of Justice, those handling flight compensation cases do not. Anyone can therefore set up a website and tout for custom from aggrieved passengers, and the small claims court is the only recourse for those who feel they have been misled.
“Flight compensation is what firms are doing now that there’s a deadline on PPI claims,” said Martyn James of the complaints website Resolver, which has received a number of enquiries about FDCT. “For them it’s money for free because the payments are a legal entitlement and should be properly regulated.”
Watson, who has now instructed aviation solicitors Bott & Co after the airline refused the claim he made himself, says he was misled: “I had no intention of entering into a contractual agreement and I did not sign any documentation. If FDCT had spelled out in advance what charges I may have incurred, I would not have submitted my details.”
HOW TO DO IT YOURSELF
If a flight departing an EU city or with an EU airline is cancelled or delayed by more than three hours you may be entitled to compensation. This also applies to flights leaving Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. The sum ranges from €250–€600 per passenger depending on the delay and the distance. You should also receive food and drink, access to phone and email and, if you’re stranded overnight, accommodation. Passengers on cancelled flights should be rerouted or refunded.
Airlines will often claim the problems were due to “extraordinary circumstances” beyond their control to duck out of their legal obligations. The law is hazy on what counts as an extraordinary circumstance, but over the years court rulings have tightened up the definition and technical problems don’t count unless they can be proved to be an inherent manufacturing fault.
Nor can airlines blame crew sickness or inclement weather since these are deemed an inevitable factor when running an airline and they are supposed to have contingency plans.
Write to the airline yourself, including the flight details and stating that you are claiming under EU Denied Boarding Regulation 261/2004. Which? provides template letters. You’ll need to know the distance of the flight to calculate the sum you are due (go to distancesfrom.com). If the airline refuses to pay out you can take your case to whichever approved dispute resolution service it is registered with, or if it has not signed up to one, to the Civil Aviation Authority’s Passenger Advice and Complaints Team. If you still get nowhere and feel you have a case, you can take the airline to the small claims court or hire a specialist solicitor with a proven track record such as Bott & Co.