The application underlying the present decision relates to a system that deals with airport closures and related flight plan changes due to natural disaster events. More specifically, based on given business rules, an automatic payment of financial compensation is paid to the airlines affected by the airport closures. However, the European Patent Office refused to grant a patent since the the relevant features would only refer to a non-technical business scheme. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 0524/19 () dated September 16, 2022 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.4.03:

Key takeaways

Policies drawn up by the notional business person are typically non-technical.

The invention

The Board in charge summarized the invention underlying the present decision as follows:

2.1.1 The volcanic activity in Iceland in 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 related flight plan changes due to natural disaster events.

2.2 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); 6) volcanic ash. 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.

2.3 The invention proposes determining, based on given business rules, the automatic payment of financial compensation to the affected business units, i.e. airlines and their fleets. This object is solved by monitoring relevant airport data, defining critical thresholds, and automation of cover payments in case of airport closures.

Fig. 1 of WO 2014/009415 A1

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1 of the main request (filed as Annex A):

  • Claim 1 (main request - labelling added by the Board)

Is it technical?

The Board in charge considered D1 to form the closest prior art for the subject-matter of claim 1 and identified the following distinguishing features, wherein technical ones are presented in italic:

2.6.1 The main differences are therefore (…):

(a) payment-receiving modules;

(b) automated transfer of risk exposure associated to the aircraft fleets is provided (= automated premium payment);

(c) means for receiving flight plan data stored in a selectable trigger-table;

(d) airport closures are matched with natural disaster event data comprised in a predefined searchable table of natural disaster events;

(e) wherein each risk is related to parameters of a table element, defining the natural disaster events,

(f) setting flags in the table of corresponding risk together with storing related natural disaster event data and/or measuring parameters indicating at least time of occurrence and/or affected region of the natural disaster event;

(g) for a match a trigger-flag is set to the assigned risk exposed aircraft fleets of the airport indicator and a parametric transfer of payments is assigned to the trigger-flag;

(h) the payments are automatically scaled based on the likelihood of said risk exposure, the number of pooled risk exposed aircraft fleets is self-adapted;

(i) the payouts are activated only if said transmission comprises a definable minimum number of airport identifications assigned to airport closings thus creating an implicit geographic spread of the closed airports of the flight plan;

(j) a failure deployment device (6) of the system (1) triggers the payout.

Then, the Board identified the effects of said features as follows (technical ones in italic):

2.7 Technical effects

2.7.1 The following (technical/non-technical) effects can be identified:

(a) payment-receiving modules: these means are implicit for any automated payment system; no specific technical effect is related thereto.

(b) automated transfer of risk exposure: these features are purely related to a business method;

(c) means for receiving flight plan data: these means are implicit when dealing with flight plan tables;

(d) a selectable trigger-table for flight plan data: storing flight plan data (in a table) implies that assignments of aircraft to specific airports can be extracted from the table;

(e) airport closures are matched: from the closed airports it can be inferred that a natural disaster has occurred;

(f) natural disaster event table: a time-dependent mapping of the occurrence of a natural disaster can be established;

(g) table with predefined risk: a risk evaluation based on the impact of a natural disaster related to a specific airport/fleet can be performed;

(h) automated and scaled payments: risk evaluation for calculating insurance cover and insurance reimbursement is related to a business method;

(i) geographic spread: mapping of airport closures in combination with the previous features allows matching of airport closures to a specific natural disaster;

(j) failure deployment device of the system: D1 discloses a failure deployment device. Linking the failure deployment device to the automatic payout realises electronically triggered payments.

Specifically with respect to feature (T), the Appellant was of the opinion that this features provides a technical effect:

2.7.2 The Appellant argued that feature (T), namely that an automatic payout can only take place if a minimum number of airport closings created “an implicit geographic spread of the closed airports of the flight plan”, had the technical effect that a certain natural disaster can be inferred from easily ascertainable data (which airport is closed when and where?) without a great deal of computing and detection effort. This did not directly result from the insurance conditions and could not be specified by the notional business person. Consequently, this feature was purely technical.

2.7.3 Since the primary technical effect of feature (T) was that a natural disaster could be detected, it could not be argued that the technical effect was “diminished” by the fact that in the final effect it served exclusively to pay out an insurance premium. In general, the primary technical effect of a non-technical feature could not be diminished by the fact that in the final effect it serves exclusively a non-technical or business purpose. This would be tantamount to imputing technical knowledge to the notional business person. If non-technical features had both a technical and a non-technical effect, the technical effect had to be taken into account when assessing inventive step (see related case T 698/19, catchword).

However, the Board in charge found that feature (T) would only refer to a pure business constraint which is not technical:

2.7.4 However, the Board is of the opinion that, while a trigger feature such as a “minimum number of airport identifications assigned to airport closings” might, in certain contexts, be seen as technical, feature (T) must be assessed as a whole and in the context of the claimed invention. The above trigger condition serves exclusively as a condition that “said assignment of the parametric transfer of payments is automatedly (sic) activated”, hence to implement the insurance policy and initiate the payment.

2.7.5 Feature (T) as a whole does not allow a natural disaster to be “detected” in any technical sense, it is merely an arbitrary rule based on a statistical inference from known data on airport closures. Certainly the notional business person has no knowledge of computer programming or detector design, but this is not what is claimed. The insurance business is based on probability and statistics, and the insurance business person must surely have some knowledge of their own business. Such a person would understand that if only one airport were closed, there is a high probability that it may be due to a local problem, whereas if ten airports in western Europe were closed, it is much more probable that a natural emergency is the cause. If the aim is to insure only against natural emergencies, then looking at previous statistical records would provide a suitable minimum number of airport closures to use in the policy. The Board does not see any technology at work here, it is just a choice by the notional business person drawing up the policy. For example, if, in a given region, the minimum number of airport closures required to trigger a payout is set to four, then if only three airports are closed, there is no payout, even if the closures are actually due to a natural disaster. So it is not a matter of “recognising” a natural disaster in the technical sense, but only a rule for a payout, which therefore has a purely economic effect.

Then, the Board summarized the effects of the distinguishing features as follows:

2.7.7 …

(i) minimum number of airport closures triggers the automated payment; the character of the features concerned is non-technical, the purpose is non-technical (transfer of financial risks)

(ii) identifying type and risk factor of a natural disaster based on flight plan data, airport closures and a natural disaster event table with associated risks; the character of the features concerned is technical, the purpose is both technical (risk evaluation) and non-technical (transfer of financial risks).

(iii) automatisation of payments; the character of the payment means used is technical, the character of the implemented method (features (Q) to (S2), (U), (V)) is non-technical.

Afterwards, the Board found that the notional business person would define the business framework described in the application as follows::

2.8.1 The Board is of the opinion that the notional business person, who does not have any technical knowledge or technical skills, defines in the insurance policy the following business framework conditions for the system:

(a) It must be defined which specific geophysical events (volcano ash, riots, hurricanes, strikes etc.) are covered (or not).

(b) It must further be defined in the insurance conditions which airports/specific regions, which specific time interval and which specific types of event are to be taken into account, e.g. only Eurasian and American airport closures may be taken into account for a minimum of seven consecutive days of closure, financial damage due to strike within the airline company and closures for less than seven days may not be taken into account etc.

(c) Another implicit condition is that only groundings of scheduled aircraft (i.e. according to a flight plan) are considered.

(d) The correlation between the risk factor and the premium payed out must further be defined in the policy.

(e) The scaling factor for the scaled payments must be defined.

(f) As discussed above a further condition may be that payouts are triggered only when a minimum number of aircraft of a fleet is concerned. A clause may be provided that reimbursement is only provided when “clustering” of airport closures occurs, i.e. the payments are only activated if there are massive airport closures and a natural event is classified as a natural disaster (e.g. four airports in a given region).

To solve this problem, the notional business person would simply instruct a computer specialist to program a computer system accordingly:

2.8.2 … 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 the central computer.

The Board then concluded that the problem to be solved could be formulated as follows, including the wording of the features that it considered non-technical:

2.8.4 The technical problem to be solved therefore can be defined as providing a systematic and automated management of financial and technical risk exposure associated to cancellation of scheduled flights due to airport closures caused by natural disasters, including implementing the claimed non-technical features (Q) to (V).

On the effects (i)-(iii) identified above, the Board commented as follows:

ad (i)

2.9.3 The failure of several airports in Germany due to lack of gas, in France due to strike, in Ukraine due to war and in Italy due to earthquake was discussed. These cases may not all be covered by the insurance policy, but it needs a quantitative parameter to determine a “disaster”, and this quantitative parameter is defined in the insurance policy and given by the notional business person to the technically skilled person for implementation. The insurance conditions require monitoring airport closures within defined regions (“geographic spread”), and it would be straightforward for the technically skilled person to arrive at an appropriate means for implementing this in an automatic manner.

ad (ii)

2.9.4 It is (at least implicitly) a non-technical constraint that the amount to be paid out should be dependent on the number of aircraft actually impacted by the airport closures. Therefore, in order to deal with the technical and financial consequences of airport closures, the Board is of the opinion that it is obvious to the skilled person to consider the concerned airports and flight plan routes to and from the closed airports according to a selectable flight plan table (if only scheduled flight are covered by the insurance policy). In view of the objective technical problem to be solved, it is 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. Flight plan data is in general available in form of a selectable trigger-table in order to retrieve the data.

2.9.5 It is a normal option to provide a time-dependent mapping of airport closures in relation to the aircraft being concerned and setting a trigger-flag to the assigned risk exposed aircraft fleets of the airport indicator.

2.9.6 Clustering, i.e. a minimum number of aircraft closures in a mapped region, is considered a pre-requisite for payment and a non-technical constraint. Also paying out according to the number of aircraft concerned is a non-technical constraint (see the related case T 288/19). The technically skilled person merely has to solve the (technical) problem of the technical implementation, i.e. the implementation of the business constraints, into the software system. The skilled person would therefore extract the flight plan data accordingly and map the (temporal or geographical) evolution. It is a normal option to monitor which flight plan connections (and therefore which airlines and aircraft) are concerned by the closure of specific airports and to provide a time-dependent mapping of the data (feature (P)).


2.9.7 Features (Q) to (V), relate to automatically triggering payouts of insurance covers, and directly result from the problem to be solved. Furthermore, the parameterization of the risk evaluation and reimbursement model is ultimately influenced by business requirements (see also reasons 2.13 of T 1798/13).

2.9.8 In T 848/15 (reasons 3.2) it was held that insurance risk management related exclusively to economic considerations in the framework of purely economic models defined by an economist and therefore was not inventive within the meaning of Article 56 EPC (cf. also T 698/19, reasons 3.8.2 ff). Accordingly, non-technical features purely relating to an insurance model (e.g. non-technical part of features (b), (h) to (j) in the present case, see point 2.7.1 above) are obvious for the same reasoning.

Against this background, the Board found that claim 1 lacks inventive step and thus dismissed the appeal.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0524/19 () of September 16, 2022

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