(CN) - Air carriers must cover accommodation, transportation and food when canceled flights displace travelers, the EU's high court ruled Thursday.
They need not compensate travelers, however, if they can prove that extraordinary circumstances caused the flight cancelation, according to the 12-page decision.
The Court of Justice for the European Union took up the issue to resolve the lawsuit against Ryan Air brought in Ireland by Denise McDonagh.
Though EU law mandates that air carriers "care" for travelers whose flights are canceled, even because of extraordinary circumstances, the Dublin court asked whether a volcanic eruption trumps extraordinary circumstances, thereby sidestepping Ryan Air's obligations. The Irish court also inquired whether obligations to provide assistance "must be limited, in temporal or monetary terms, in those circumstances."
McDonagh had been stranded in Faro, Portugal, for a week after the eruptions of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland forced the closure of airspace over most of northern Europe in April and May 2010. The eruptions resulted in the cancelation of thousands of flights to, from and within Europe, and disrupted international air travel for weeks.
McDonagh claimed that Ryanair 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.
In March 2012, Advocate General Yves Bot found that the volcanic eruption did not give Ryan Air any room to sidestep its obligations to care for stranded passengers. He also said EU law does not support temporal or monetary limits to such care, rejecting Ryanair's request for a cap of 80 euros a day for up to three nights.
The Court of Justice echoed this opinion in its final decision Thursday.
"As the advocate general noted in point 52 of his opinion, the provision of care to such 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 whose flight has been cancelled can have access to essential goods and services throughout that period," the ruling states.
Providing care means "undoubted financial consequences" for air carriers, but that cannot invalidate the obligation "since those consequences cannot be considered disproportionate to the aim of ensuring a high level of protection for passengers," the five-judge panel added.
"The importance of the objective of consumer protection, which includes the protection of air passengers, may justify even substantial negative economic consequences for certain economic operators," according to the ruling.