One man’s 18-month battle with Ryanair over compensation for a flight delay may have ended in success, but his struggle for a payout underlines how regulators are failing thousands of air passengers with valid claims.

Martin Wragg was finally awarded around €1,700 (£1,400) this month after his family faced a delay of three hours and 20 minutes on their return from San Javier, Spain, in October 2012. “It was a complete nightmare being transferred from one airport to the other to catch the re-routed service, especially with two tired children in the middle of the night,” he says.

When Ryanair rejected his claim Wragg took his case to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which travellers can turn to if their complaint to an airline is turned down. “It passed this on to the Spanish regulator, Aesa, which ruled in my favour,” he says. However, he still didn’t receive a penny, as these regulators have no legal powers to force airlines to pay.

Ryanair stuck to its defence that “extraordinary circumstances” meant it could deny the claim. Typically, this involves extreme weather, industrial action or civil unrest.

“Ryanair claimed that they had asked the authorities at Murcia airport to keep the airport open beyond its nightly curfew so they could land a delayed plane to be used for my flight,” says Wragg. “It said that these requests were often granted and because in this case it was not, the delay wasn’t their fault.”

Ryanair was asked to prove that the curfew existed, and that such requests to extend it were frequently granted, but it did neither. It refused to comment, saying it has a policy of not doing so on individual passenger claims.

Wragg is one of tens of thousands of passengers tackling intransigent airlines. Latest figures given to the Observer by the CAA show that complaints about flight delays have almost quadrupled over the past year. It received 23,440 claims for compensation in the 12 months to March 2014, up from 6,028 in the previous year. It finds in favour of around 40% of cases.

The soaring number of passengers filing claims follows clarification of European Union rules in October 2012. The EU’s Court of Justice passed a judgment that air passengers who arrive more than three hours late at their destination are due compensation of up to €600 (£494) plus expenses, per person.

You are only entitled to compensation if the delay was as a result of something within the airline’s control. So failing to have the aircraft in place, staffing problems and under-booking count, but poor weather or political unrest do not.

The table (left) shows how much you can claim for various flight distances and length of delay, but the delay threshold could change next summer as a proposal by the European parliament suggests increasing this to five, seven or even 12 hours. The law for flight delay compensation applies to any flight leaving an EU airport and any flight into Europe on an EU-based airline.

However, as Wragg’s case illustrates, taking a case to the regulator is not necessarily the end of the story, because airlines can refuse to pay. Ryanair continued to dig its heels in, despite Wragg finally going to the small claims court – where his claim was upheld.

“Ryanair seemed determined not to pay despite genuine findings in my favour, even appealing against the court’s decision. This was rejected, but I had to enlist the Dublin County Sheriff’s service to get them to pay up,” he says.

Others are finding that the regulator is failing to find in favour of eligible claims. The case of a Winchester man, Martin Longden, against Monarch last year received press coverage when he was awarded more than £3,200 in compensation after representing himself in court. This followed his family enduring a 24-hour delay for a flight from Egypt to Gatwick in April 2012. During three court hearings the airline failed to provide evidence that a cracked windscreen on the outbound flight was enough to warrant the delay.

He had first taken his case to the CAA, but, frustrated, turned to the court after the regulator failed to respond with a decision. It finally sent an email saying that he was not entitled to compensation – two months after his case was settled – adding that Monarch had a strong case not to pay compensation.

“Thirty minutes later they sent a second email, acknowledging that I’d won in court,” he says. “I question whether the public really are getting the service from the regulator that they have a right to expect.”

The CAA admits that passengers may face delays when bringing claims because of the high number being received and the complexity of many of them. It says that the law sets out clearly when airlines should pay compensation.

“However, passengers who are unhappy with the response from their airline and want to pursue their claim can contact our free mediation service and we will provide all the help we can,” a spokesman says. “Passengers also have the option of taking their case to the small claims court.”

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Photo Credit: Passengers wait underneath blank departure screens following a power outage at the North Terminal of London Gatwick Airport in Horley, England. Sang Tan / Associated Press