The application underlying this decision relates to automatically paying financial compensation to affected business units, e.g. airlines and their fleets. However, the European Patent Office refused to grant a patent that mainly focused on damage cover and automated compensation payment. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 0288/19 (notional business person) of February 17, 2022 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.4.03:

Key takeaways

A business person oftentimes provides a framework and the object of an invention. However, the solution to this object can only be provided by a technically skilled person.

The invention

The Board in charge summarized the invention as follows:

1.1 The volcano activities in Iceland 2010 and the subsequent closure of airspace led to an estimated loss of 1.7 billion dollars for the airline industry. Between 15 and 21 April 2010 almost the entire European airspace was closed resulting in cancellation of all flights in, to and from Europe. The invention relates to dealing with such airport closures and flight plan changes related to natural disaster events.

1.2 When aircraft are grounded for more than ten days, airline companies may no longer be able to pay the operating resources (kerosene, salaries, maintenance etc.) due to lack of revenues. It is an aim of the invention to reduce the risk that airline companies go bankrupt due to lack of cash for operation during or after natural disaster events. The airlines seek risk transfer by means of insurance technology to cover such unforeseeable events and to ensure operation of the aircraft fleets. The related technology should be able to cover risk events such as 1) strikes, riots etc.; 2) war, hijacking, terror; 3) pandemic-based risks; 4) extreme weather situations; 5) instabilities in Air Traffic Control (ATC). However, the covers are technically difficult to design because no standards e.g. for critical ash concentrations exist. It is an object of the invention to provide an automated system preventing imminent grounding of aircraft fleets due to missing financial resources after risk events and to provide a systematic and automated management of risk exposure.

1.3 The invention proposes automatically paying financial compensation to the affected business units, i.e. airlines and their fleets, by monitoring relevant airport data, defining critical thresholds and automating cover payments in case of airport closures.

Fig. 1 of WO 2015/008925 A1

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1 of the main request and of the first auxiliary request:

  • Claim 1 (Claim 1 according to the Main Request and First Auxiliary Request (feature labelling (A) to (V) added by the Board))

Is it technical?

According to the assessment of the Board in charge, claim 1 of the main request and of the first auxiliary request includes the following distinguishing features over the closest prior art document D1:

3.2.7 Therefore D1 does not explicitly disclose

(a) flight plan data is presented as a hash table.

(b) a threshold which is linked to a minimum number of airport identifications assigned to airport closures thus creating an implicit geographic spread of the closed airports of the flight plan.

(c) the geographic spread is associated with geophysical disaster events.

(d) damage covering is performed with a definable upper coverage limit, instead of simple damage prevention.

(e) automated payments are scaled payments and are based on the likelihood of said risk exposure.

(f) flight interruption risks are shared by providing a self-sufficient risk protection.

Concerning the effect of these features, the Board commented as follows:

3.3.2 Effects and technical/non-technical character of the features:

(i) features (a) [part 1, considering the flight plan], (b) and (c) [creating an implicit geographic spread of the closed airports in case of a natural disaster] are related to preventing further financial damage. The character of these features is technical, the purpose is non-technical.

(ii) hashing the flight plan data has the technical effect of improved data base indexing. Both the character and effect of feature (a), part 2, are technical.

(iii) features (d) to (f) are related to a shared insurance cover system including managing the payments; the character and effect of these features as such are non-technical.

Afterwards, the Board held that the overall character and effect of claim 1 is technical:

3.3.3 To summarise, the subject of the present invention (the “what”) is an automated system for dealing with technical/financial damage of an aircraft fleet and is without any doubt technical. The purpose (the “why”) of the present invention however is the automation of a business scheme for providing monetary cover for financial damage to aircraft fleets based on available information, including flight plans and information about airport closures and natural events, i.e. a managerial system for managing the business operations of aircraft fleets including involved operational and financial risks, including covering financial losses of airlines caused by the situation of airport closures resulting from natural disaster. This purpose is non-technical and relates to a business method. The solution (the “how”) with respect to the disclosure of D1 is both technical (adaptation of the software) and non-technical (implementation of the business model). Therefore, the overall character and effect of claim 1 is technical.

Hence, claim 1 provides a mixed-type subject-matter.

Then, as a second step, the Board stated that it considers features (O) to (V) non-technical. Thus, these features may be used for formulating the objective technical problem to be solved:

3.3.4 Non-technical features within the meaning of Article 52(2)(c) EPC, i.e. features related to business methods, are allowed in the context of other technical features, but cannot contribute to inventive step. These features can thus be included into the formulation of the task (see, inter alia, G 1/19 [reasons 31], T 0641/00, G 3/08, Case Law of the Boards of Appeal, 9th edition 2019, sections I.D.9.1.2 to I.D.9.1.4). According to T 0641/00, the aim to be achieved in a non-technical field may legitimately appear in the formulation of the problem as part of the framework of the technical problem. Therefore, the non-technical features (O) to (V) (“damage cover” and “automated payment”) can be included into the task formulation as a framework condition to be fulfilled.

Then, contrary to the Appellant’s line of argumentation, the Board in charge held that the skilled person for the present case is not a notional business person, but a computer specialist:

3.4.3 In the present case the skilled person solving the objective technical problem however is not the “notional business person”, but a computer specialist, because the solution of the problem concerns principally re-programming the central CPU (e.g. of the ground station 81). The business person however provides the framework and object of the invention. This is very frequently the case for technical inventions, e.g. a business person may instruct an engineer to design a double-deck aircraft for up to 850 passengers with a budget of 10 billion dollars. The solution to this object can only be provided by a technically skilled person. In the present case the notional business person (e.g. insurance company in cooperation with the airline companies concerned) instructs a computer specialist with the implementation of an automated system. Their task is to adapt the software in module 81 of D1 (cf. also T 2522/16, reasons 3.2.1, T 0589/17, reasons 2.6, T 0755/18, reasons 3.5).

3.4.4 The Appellant argued that the skilled person needed to have specific knowledge in aircraft communication systems and aircraft security. The Board however concludes that such specific knowledge is not necessary because all raw data required for solving the problem is available on the computer base station 81 of D1. The modified software has only to provide a link between airport closure data and automated payments.

Against this background, the Board formulated the technical problem as follows:

3.5.2 The Board therefore formulates the objective technical problem with D1 as starting point as “technically implementing an automated management of financial risk exposure of scheduled flights due to airport closures, including implementing the claimed non-technical features (O) to (V)“.

Finally, the Board argued that the claimed subject-matter is rendered obvious to the skilled person by D1 combined with general knowledge, thereby individually addressing the technical and non-technical features:

3.6 Obviousness

ad (i)

3.6.1 The technically skilled person would therefore consider analysing whether airports were closed and whether such closures were linked to geophysical events covered by the insurance policy. They would then adapt the threshold defined in D1 to a specific number of airport closures within the given time window as defined in the insurance policy.

3.6.2 In order to deal with the technical and financial consequences of airport closures it is obvious to the skilled person to consider the concerned airports and flight plan routes to and from the closed airports. In view of the objective technical problem to be solved it would be a normal option to monitor which flight plan connection (and therefore which fleets and airlines) are concerned by the closure of specific airports and air-spaces. Furthermore, the emergency system of D3 teaches ([0084]) to take flight plan data into account. The skilled person would therefore adapt the software architecture of D1 and correlate the airport closure events with the flight plan data.

ad (ii)

3.6.3 In order to improve the data base indexing of the flight plan table the skilled person would choose the common option of providing the flight plan data in a hash table. D11 teaches the use of hash tables.

ad (iii)

3.6.4 Features (O) to (V) directly result from the problem to be solved.

As a result, the Board in charge dismissed the appeal due to lack of inventive step.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0288/19 of February 17, 2022 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.4.03

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