Airlines face having to pay compensation for flight cancellations caused by pilots falling ill while off duty after the Supreme Court ruled it does not amount to an “extraordinary circumstance”.

Kenneth and Linda Lipton took BA Cityflyer, an arm of British Airways (BA), to court after they arrived in London from Milan in January 2018 more than two hours late, following the cancellation of their original flight because of a pilot falling ill at home while off duty.

The airline refused to pay around £220 in compensation for the delay, arguing that the pilot’s illness was an “extraordinary circumstance” which could not have been avoided and was out of its control.

After two courts upheld the company’s position, the Court of Appeal ruled in the couple’s favour, with the airline then taking the case to the Supreme Court.

But on Wednesday, five Supreme Court justices unanimously dismissed the company’s appeal.

In their judgment, Lord Sales and Lady Rose said that it “does not matter” when the pilot fell ill, as the crew member remained an “inherent part of the airline’s operation” even when not on duty.

In a decision backed by Lord Lloyd-Jones, Lord Burrows and Lady Simler, they said: “If the pilot drinks so as to be unfit to report for work and the flight is cancelled, then the reason for the cancellation is inherent in the airline’s activity and operations.

“The same is also true of the need for the captain and other cabin crew to ensure that they are properly rested during stopovers.

“They have numerous obligations both to their employers and to the public during those periods.

“These are all inherent in the carrier’s activity and operations and if, for whatever reason, they are unable to attend for work as a result of something going awry during those rest periods, whether it is their fault or not, that failure to attend is not an extraordinary circumstance.”

In a joint statement issued by their law firm, Irwin Mitchell, following the ruling, Mr and Mrs Lipton, from Westerham in Kent, said they “never wanted to be in this position”.

They said: “We see this as not just a win for ourselves but a victory for people who are prepared to fight for common sense and justice against corporate behemoths who have access to every resource.

Kenneth and Linda Lipton (Irwin Mitchell/PA)
Kenneth and Linda Lipton took BA Cityflyer to court(Irwin Mitchell/PA)

“We never wanted to be in this position but felt we had little choice but to continue our legal case given the stance of the carrier all the way through this.

“Their insistence to continue this battle to the highest court in the land has now met with the correct conclusion and our significantly smaller, but no less wily team has succeeded against all odds.

“We would like to extend our sincerest gratitude to the barristers who represented us and Irwin Mitchell who were tremendous in ensuring our route, whilst painful, was informed at every step of the way, even when it appeared we were able to fight no longer. However, we saw it through, and we won.”

A spokesperson for BA said: “We are disappointed with this decision and respect the judgment of the court.”