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Death comes for us all, but it’s no excuse for flight delays in EU

A Portuguese airline refused to compensate passengers for a canceled flight after the co-pilot died, but the EU’s top court said his death wasn’t an extraordinary circumstance that exempts the company from paying.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Death may be tragic but it’s no excuse to not compensate travelers for delayed flights, the European Union’s top court said on Thursday. 

The European Court of Justice held that Portuguese airline TAP must reimburse passengers for a 2019 flight cancellation after the plane’s co-pilot died, finding that, from a legal perspective, death is no different than an illness or accident. 

A 2019 flight from the German city of Stuttgart to Portugal’s capital Lisbon was canceled after the plane’s co-pilot was found dead in his hotel room. The early morning flight’s remaining crew were so distraught by their colleague’s unexpected demise that they declared themselves unfit to fly. 

The passengers eventually landed in Lisbon 10 hours after their scheduled arrival time and several asked for compensation under the EU’s Air Passengers Rights Regulation. Delayed air travelers in the EU are entitled to anywhere from 250 euros ($246) to 600 euros ($590) depending on the length of the delay and the distance of the flight. 

TAP refused to pay, arguing the death of the co-pilot was an extraordinary circumstance that exempted the airline from the reimbursement obligation. 

Three passengers filed a complaint in a German court, claiming TAP was violating EU law. Eventually, the Stuttgart Regional Court referred the case to the Court of Justice, asking for clarification as to whether a pilot’s death would qualify for an exemption. 

The Luxembourg-based court concluded that, as with an unexpected illness or an accident, airlines must account for death in their scheduling.

“Such a death, whilst tragic, does not amount to an ’extraordinary circumstance’ but is … inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the airline,” the court said in a press release. 

TAP argued its pilot had completed all of the required medical examinations, making his death totally unforeseeable, but the five-judge panel was not convinced.

“Any person may, at any time, unexpectedly fall ill or die,” the ruling said. 

The Court of Justice has frequently ruled against airlines that have tried to avoid paying compensation for flight delays. Last year, it found that delayed passengers with journeys on multiple airlines were entitled to compensation. In 2021, the court sided with travelers delayed by strikes and passengers who arrived at their destination too early. It has also held that passengers who book via travel agencies are entitled to payments. 

TAP passengers have had problems flying from Stuttgart before. In 2018, the air carrier had to cancel a flight after the co-pilot was found drunk in the cockpit just before takeoff. The plane’s 106 passengers had to be booked into a hotel overnight after the flight was scrapped “due to the pilot’s incapacity."

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Categories / Appeals, Business, Consumers, International

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