ECJ: Airlines Must Look After Delayed Passengers, Period

 - February 4, 2013, 1:27 PM
A Ryanair Boeing 737-800 waits at its gate at London Gatwick Airport. In a landmark decision, the European Court of Justice ruled last week that the airline must compensate a passenger for “care and assistance” during a week-long delay resulting from the Icelandic volcano of 2010.

Europe’s highest court, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg, confirmed in a ruling last Thursday that airlines based in the EU carry liability for accommodation and other “necessary, appropriate and reasonable” costs incurred by passengers in the event of long delays, even for disruptions beyond their control.

In this case, the Icelandic volcanic eruption of 2010 stranded passenger Denise McDonagh for a week, but low-fare airline Ryanair refused to pay for her accommodation and food while she waited to return to Dublin. The airline claimed that the volcanic eruption constituted “extraordinary circumstances,” in which case, it claimed, EU Regulation 261/2004 relieved it of any liability. However, the court ruled that while such an event might allow airlines to refuse payment of compensation for delays or cancellations, it doesn’t limit liability for care and assistance.

“It is precisely in situations where the waiting period occasioned by the cancellation of a flight is particularly lengthy that it is necessary to ensure that an air passenger can have access to essential goods and services throughout that period,” said the ruling.

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary reacted to the ruling with bemusement. “The next time there’s an ash cloud or the skies are closed by Europe’s governments, the insurance companies will walk away and wash their hands because it is an act of God,” he told Sky News. “The airlines will become the insurers of last resort, so somebody who has paid us to go to the Canaries who maybe is stuck there for two weeks, two months, six months will now sue the airlines…you’ll have airlines going out of business and the ones who stay in business will be putting up their air fares to recover these crazy claims.”

The ECJ previously upset airlines when it confirmed its ruling (in Sturgeon v Condor, 2009) that compensation levels for cancellations by the airline, where the airline cannot demonstrate “extraordinary circumstances” beyond its control, also apply to flight delays (in getting to the destination) of three hours or more. Compensation amounts to €250 per passenger for flights of 1,500 kilometers or less; €400 for intra-community flights of more than 1,500 kilometers and all other flights between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometers; and €600 for any other flight.

The Court also said that the requirement to pay compensation for delay could apply retroactively, raising the possibility of new claims against airlines for past events.