(CN) – A volcanic eruption that poured millions of tons of ash into EU airspace wasn’t extraordinary enough for airlines to duck compensating travelers for delayed or canceled flights. But a bird strike may be, the European Court of Justice ruled Thursday.
On a summer day in 2013, an airplane operated by Czech airline Travel Service began making its rounds between Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. It flew from Prague to Burgas, Bulgaria, where a valve failed. The repair took nearly two hours.
The plane then flew to Brno – back in the Czech Republic – where it collided with a bird during landing. A local company checked out the plane and found no damage, but Travel Service insisted on bringing its own technicians from out of town to do another check.
Undamaged, the plane headed back to Burgas and made its final flight of the day – to Ostrava, Czech Republic, where it arrived nearly 5 ½ hours late.
Two passengers on the final flight brought an action for compensation under the EU’s travelers bill of rights, which entitles passengers to compensation for delays and cancelations. They said since the flight was delayed by three or more hours, they were entitled to $275.
The Czech court hearing their action asked the European Court of Justice whether a bird strike amounts to an extraordinary circumstance – a loophole by which air carriers can duck compensating travelers for delays or canceled flights.
The loophole is oft tried but rarely successful. The EU high court ruled in 2014 that wing damage to German carrier Condor’s plane, caused by a gate collision with mobile boarding stairs, wasn’t all that extraordinary and ordered the carrier to compensate its delayed customers.
In 2013, the Luxembourg-based court rejected Ireland-based Ryanair’s arguments that the 2010 eruptions of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland – which forced the closure of airspace over most of Northern Europe for a month – was an extraordinary circumstance, and ordered the budget carrier to compensate stranded customers.
And not even a strike of Barcelona airport workers warranted a pass on compensation for Finnair, though the court did suggest the carrier try to recoup its losses from airport management.
But the bird’s collision with the Travel Service plane, on the other hand, amounted to an extraordinary and unavoidable event that might let the carrier out of its obligation to passengers, the court said in its 7-page preliminary ruling.
Which isn’t to say Travel Service is off the hook just yet: calling in its own technicians to check the plane a second time was unnecessary, and the portion of the delay that can be attributed to that must be added to the three-hour clock, the court said.
Meanwhile, the court has previously ruled that normal wear-and-tear leading to failed parts – like the valve that needed to be replaced after the Prague-Burgas segment – is neither extraordinary nor unforeseeable. Planes break, parts fail and passengers should pay the price, the court has said.
The EU court’s ruling is binding on the Czech court, which will ultimately decide the case.