Air Passengers Impacted by Strikes Must Be Paid, EU High Court Rules

 A 2019 pilot strike at Scandinavian Airlines left about 380,000 passengers stranded. 

Travelers wait at Oslo Airport in Gardermoen, Norway, in April 2019 after a strike by pilots led Scandinavian Airlines to cancel almost all of its flights. (Ole Berg-Rusten/NTB Scanpix via AP)

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — Airlines must compensate passengers who were stranded because of labor strikes, the European Union’s top court found on Tuesday. 

Employee strikes do not qualify as an extraordinary circumstance, the European Court of Justice held, and therefore do not exempt airlines from compensating passengers under EU regulations. 

“A strike nevertheless … must be regarded as an event inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the employer concerned, irrespective of the particular features of the labor market concerned or of the national legislation applicable as regards implementation of that fundamental right,” the court’s Grand Chamber wrote. 

The case against Scandinavian Airline System, or SAS, was brought by the German claims management company AirHelp, which helps passengers claim compensation for delayed or canceled flights. 

A Scandinavian Airlines jet. (Photo by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay via Courthouse News)

Following the collapse of negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement between SAS and its pilot union, the airline was forced to cancel nearly all of its flights in April 2019. The week-long strike canceled more than 4,000 flights across Scandinavia and left some 380,000 passengers stranded. 

One passenger, identified in court documents only as S., had a domestic flight booked from Malmö, Sweden, to Stockholm on April 29, 2019, three days after the strike began. After their flight was canceled, Airhelp requested 250 euros ($300) for the passenger under the EU’s Flight Compensation Regulation, which requires airlines operating in the 27-member bloc to provide financial assistance to passengers if their flights are cancelled or delayed. 

SAS argued that because strikes are rare in Sweden, the work stoppage counted as an extraordinary circumstance and the company could not have foreseen the cancellation. But a 15-judge panel of the Court of Justice disagreed Tuesday.

“A strike whose objective is limited to obtaining from an air transport undertaking an increase in the pilots’ salary, a change in their work schedules and greater predictability as regards working hours constitutes an event that is inherent in the normal exercise of that undertaking’s activity,” the ruling states.

The Luxembourg-based court had previously ruled that wildcat strikes – employee walkouts not organized by a trade union – also do not qualify as extraordinary circumstances. 

Christian Nielsen, AirHelp’s chief legal officer, applauded Tuesday’s ruling in a statement.

“The decision from the European Court of Justice sets the new standard on how strike cases are dealt with, as it is binding for all EU countries and airlines. The ruling clarifies a very important matter for all passengers that are affected by airline staff strikes in the future, but also for those who suffered from this in the past years. We see many airline staff strikes every year, affecting millions of passengers,” Nielsen said.

The Court of Justice has frequently ruled in favor of airline passengers’ rights in cases involving the compensation regulation. The court has determined that airlines are required to provide compensation for cancellations or delays even if flights leave the EU, if passengers they miss connecting flights or if flights are booked through a travel agency. It has also ruled that technical problems and damage caused by mobile stairs don’t qualify as extraordinary events, though the 2010 eruptions of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull did

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