Remember April 2010? Remember Eyjafjallajökull? Millions of travellers stranded on airports all over the world? Who was going to pay for all this? Did the volcano eruption exempt air carriers from all responsibility?
The Court of Justice didn’t think so…
In its decision of 31 january 2013, the Court of Justice ruled that an air carrier must provide care to passengers whose flight has been cancelled due to extraordinary circumstances such as the closure of airspace following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
In the event of cancellation of a flight, the air carrier is obliged, under EU law, to provide care to passengers as well as to provide compensation. As regards the obligation to provide care, the air carrier must provide free of charge, in light of the waiting time, refreshments, meals and, where appropriate, hotel accommodation and transport between the airport and place of accommodation, as well as means of communication with third parties. The air carrier is obliged to fulfil that obligation even when the cancellation of the flight is caused by extraordinary circumstances, that is to say circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken. The air carrier is, however, exempt from its obligation to provide compensation if it is able to prove that the cancellation of the flight was caused by such circumstances.
The facts of the case
Following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, airspace over a number of Member States – including Ireland – was closed between 15 and 22 April 2010, because of the risks to aircraft.
Ms McDonagh’s flight was cancelled on 17 April 2010 following the volcanic eruption. She was not able to return to Dublin until 24 April. During that period, Ryanair did not provide her with any care. Accordingly, she was of the opinion that that airline wasobliged to pay her compensation or an amount, corresponding to the costs of meals, refreshments, accommodation and transport.
Referral to the Court of Justice
The Dublin Metropolitan District Court has asked the Court of Justice whether the closure of airspace as a result of a volcanic eruption comes under the notion of ‘extraordinary circumstances’, obliging the air carrier to provide care to passengers, or whether, on the contrary, that situation comes under circumstances which go beyond ‘extraordinary circumstances’ and exempt the air carrier from its obligation to provide care to passengers. Furthermore, if the Court finds that such circumstances do come under the notion of ‘extraordinary circumstances’, it is also asked to rule on the question whether, in such a situation, the obligation to provide care must be subject to a temporal and/or a monetary limitation.
Particular inconvenience goes beyond limited discomfort
The Court responded, first, that EU law does not recognise a separate category of ‘particularly extraordinary’ events, beyond ‘extraordinary circumstances’, which would lead to the air carrier being exempted from all its obligations under the regulation, including those to provide care. If circumstances such as those at issue in the present case went beyond, due to their origin and scale, the scope of ‘extraordinary circumstances’, it would in fact mean that air carriers would be required to provide the care referred to in the regulation only to air passengers who find themselves, due to cancellation of a flight, in a situation causing limited inconvenience. On the other hand, passengers who find themselves in a particularly vulnerable state in that they are forced to remain at an airport for several days would be denied that protection. Therefore the Court replies that circumstances such as the closure of part of European airspace as a result of a volcanic eruption such as that of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano constitute ‘extraordinary circumstances’ which do not release air carriers from their obligation to provide care.
No limitation in time
Next, the Court states that the regulation does not provide for any limitation, either temporal or monetary, of the obligation to provide care to passengers whose flight is cancelled due to extraordinary circumstances. Thus, all the obligations to provide care to passengers are imposed on the air carrier for the whole period during which the passengers concerned must await their re-routing. The Court states that the provision of care to passengers is particularly important in the case of ‘extraordinary circumstances’ which persist over a long time and 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.
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 (OJ 2004 L 46, p. 1).
Flight cancelled or delayed: the difference matters! (internal link)
Information on air passengers in the EP library (internal link)