(CN) – Ryanair should reimburse customers left stranded when a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland blanketed the skies with ash, an adviser to Europe’s high court said Thursday.
After the eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull forced the closure of airspace over most of northern Europe in April and May 2010, Denise McDonagh was stranded in Faro, Portugal, for a week before flights to her homeland of Ireland resumed. The eruptions resulted in the cancellation of thousands of flights to, from and within Europe, and disrupted international air travel for weeks.
EU law requires that air carriers provide complimentary meals, refreshments, means for communication and, when necessary, hotel accommodations to passengers whose flights have been cancelled for any reason. They are released from paying additional compensation beyond mandatory assistance if the carriers can prove the cancellation was caused by “extraordinary circumstances.”
Once home, McDonagh filed suit against Ryanair, claiming that the budget airline violated EU law by refusing to provide her with the necessary assistance and compensation for the additional expenses she incurred during her extra week abroad.
The Court of Justice for the European Union stepped in to clarify whether a volcanic eruption is an extraordinary circumstance, or if such an event is above and beyond extraordinary circumstances, which could release Ryanair from its obligations. The Irish court also inquired whether obligations to provide assistance “must be limited, in temporal or monetary terms, in those circumstances.”
In his recommendation to the Luxembourg court, Advocate General Yves Bot said he relied on everyday language to define an “extraordinary event” because EU law provides no direction.
EU courts have held that the regulation tries to ensure the protection of air passengers who were denied a seat or whose the flight was delayed or canceled.
While compensation rules encourage air carriers to notify passengers in advance of potential delays or cancellations, the law requiring care and feeding of inconvenienced passengers serves a different purpose, Bot found.
“That care – through the supply of meals, refreshments and, if necessary, accommodation – is intended to make it possible for passengers to continue with their travel under satisfactory conditions, and to avoid abandoning them to their fate whilst they wait to be re-routed or for an alternative solution to be found,” the opinion states. “The care to be provided is therefore assistance to air passengers who are considered particularly vulnerable in such circumstances. Consequently, that assistance is even more vital where the passengers are stranded at an airport on account of extraordinary circumstances.”
In the case of a volcanic eruption that strands passengers for days, such care becomes more essential, Bot said.
EU law does not support temporal or monetary limits to such care, he added. Ryanair had lobbied for an accommodation limit of 80 euros a day for up to three nights.
“I consider that a limitation along the lines proposed by Ryanair would in some measure deprive [the regulations] of their effectiveness, since after a few days the air passengers would be abandoned to their fate,” Bot wrote.
It is worth noting that “on 4 April 2011, Ryanair itself introduced an ‘EU 261’ levy per passenger and per flight in order to cover the costs it has incurred in connection with its obligation, among other things, to provide care for passengers whose flights have been cancelled in cases of force majeure,” Bot added. “Ryanair expressly refers to the closure of airspace owing to the eruption of the Icelandic volcano.”
“In so far as Ryanair passes on to passengers, as it is entitled to do, the costs incurred as a result of compensation, it is difficult to see how it can be suffering an inequitable imbalance,” Bot concluded.
The advocate general’s opinion is nonbinding on the Court of Justice, which will issue its decision on the case in the coming months.