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Denied boarding : more rights for air passengers

In two separate rulings on 4 October 2012 the European Court of Justice yet again enforced the rights of air passengers in case of denied boarding. 

Rescheduling through strike

©garytamin under customs license

In a first case, the Court of Justice ruled that an air carrier must compensate passengers when they have been denied boarding because their flight was rescheduled as a result of a strike at the airport two days beforehand . Following a strike by staff at Barcelona Airport the scheduled flight from Barcelona to Helsinki operated by Finnair had to be cancelled. In order that the passengers on that flight should not have too long a waiting time, Finnair decided to reschedule subsequent flights. The consequence of that rescheduling was that some of the passengers who had bought their tickets for the scheduled flights on the two following days and who had duly presented themselves for boarding, went to Helsinki on later flights. None of these passengers received any compensation from Finnair. A passenger brought the case to a Finnish court. The Supreme Court of Finland – before which the case was brought at final instance – asked for a preliminary ruling by the Court of Justice regarding the scope of the concept of ‘denied boarding’ and also as to whether an air carrier may rely on extraordinary circumstances and validly deny passengers boarding on flights.

Who is affected by strike?

The Court stated that the occurrence of extraordinary circumstances – such as a strike – resulting in an air carrier rescheduling subsequent flights did not give grounds for denying boarding or for exempting that carrier from its obligation to compensate  passengers denied boarding on those later flights. According to the Court, it is apparent from the regulation that an air carrier is not required to pay compensation in the event of cancellation of a flight due to ‘extraordinary circumstances’, that is, those which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken. That is the case of the passengers denied boarding on the day of the strike. The Court noted that extraordinary circumstances may relate only to a particular aircraft on a particular day, which is not the case when boarding is denied because flights are rescheduled as a result of extraordinary circumstances affecting an earlier flight.

Missed connection

In the second case, the Court ruled that passengers on connected flights must be compensated when denied boarding as a result of a delay to the first flight caused by the airline.Two passengers had bought airline tickets from the airline Iberia: the tickets comprised two connected flights: the flight Corunna-Madrid and the flight Madrid-Santo Domingo. The passengers were given two boarding cards for the two successive flights.  The first flight was delayed by 1 hour and 25 minutes and in anticipation that that delay would result in the two passengers missing their connection in Madrid, Iberia cancelled their boarding cards for the second flight. When presenting themselves at the departure gate in the final boarding call to passengers, the Iberia staff did not, however, allow them to board on the grounds that their boarding cards had been cancelled and their seats allocated to other passengers. The applicants brought an action before the Spanish courts seeking a decision ordering Iberia to pay them the sum of EUR 600 each, by way of compensation, provided for by the regulation 261/2004.

The Spanish national court asked the Court of Justice whether the concept of ‘denied boarding’ referred exclusively to situations in which flights have been overbooked initially or whether that concept may be extended to cover other situations.

Arbitrary decision by the carrier

In its judgment, the Court held that the concept of ‘denied boarding’ relates not only to cases of overbooking but also to those concerning other grounds, such as operational reasons . The Court considered that a denial of boarding such as that in the present case may not be placed on the same footing as those reasons, since the ground for denying boarding in question was not attributable to the passenger. On the contrary, such a denial of boarding is attributable to the carrier. Either that carrier caused the delay to the first flight operated by it, mistakenly considered that the passengers concerned would not be able to present themselves in time to board the following flight or sold tickets for successive flights for which the transfer time was insufficient.

In both cases the interpretation of the Court follows not only from the wording of the regulation, but also from its objective, namely that of ensuring a high level of protection for air passengers. With the aim of reducing the number of passengers denied boarding against their will, which was too high, the EU legislature introduced new legislation in 2004 construing the concept of ‘denied boarding’ more broadly, covering all circumstances in which an air carrier refuses to carry a passenger. Consequently, limiting the scope of ‘denied boarding’ exclusively to cases of overbooking would have the practical effect of substantially reducing the protection afforded to passengers, by denying them all protection, even if they find themselves in a situation for which, as in the case of overbooking, they are not responsible. That would be contrary the aim of the legislature.

Further reading:

Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 February 2004 establishing common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding and of cancellation or long delay of flights, and repealing Regulation (EEC) No 295/91 (OJ 2004 L 46, p. 1).

Answers to Questions on the application of Regulation 261/2004

Judgment of the Court of Justice in Case C-321/11   

Judgment of the Court of Justice in Case C-22/11

Pictures of the delivery of the judgment are available from “Europe by Satellite

Library summaries:

Flight cancelled or delayed: the difference matters! (internal link)

Information on air passengers in the EP library (internal link)

About Geert Plas

Polyvalent information specialist at the European Parliament Library

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