(CN) - Finnair must compensate passengers bumped after an airport strike grounded flights, the European high court ruled.
A one-day Barcelona airport workers' strike in 2006 forced Finnair to cancel its once-daily flight to Helsinki. Despite arranging extra flights to accommodate passengers, the ripple effect of the cancellation -- impacting operations even three days after the strike -- forced the airline to bump passengers onto other flights.
Finnair did not compensate passengers it bumped, and Timy Lassooy -- who presented himself for his scheduled flight three days after the strike and got bumped -- sued the airline. Lassooy cited EU law which requires air carriers to pay passengers who are denied boarding outside of "the occurrence of extraordinary circumstances."
Finnair argued that an airport strike -- outside of its control -- constituted extraordinary circumstances, and that the law specifically applies to overbooking flights. But following an April opinion by a court adviser, the EU Court of Justice found that denied boarding relates to other situations and operational issues.
"The situation in question in the main proceedings is comparable to cases where boarding is denied because of 'initial' overbooking, since the air carrier had reallocated the applicant's seat in order to transport other passengers, and it therefore chose itself between several passengers to be transported. Admittedly, that reallocation was done in order to avoid the passengers affected by flights cancelled on account of extraordinary circumstances having excessively long waiting times. However, that ground is not comparable to those specifically mentioned in [the law], since it is in no way attributable to the passenger to whom boarding is denied," the Luxembourg court wrote .
"It cannot be accepted that an air carrier may, relying on the interest of other passengers in being transported within a reasonable time, increase considerably the situations in which it would have reasonable grounds for denying a passenger boarding. That would necessarily have the consequence of depriving such a passenger of all protection, which would be contrary to the objective ... which seeks to ensure a high level of protection for passengers by means of a broad interpretation of the rights granted to them," the court wrote.
Nor do extraordinary circumstances -- like an airport strike -- exempt an air carrier from compensating affected passengers, according to the court.
Extraordinary circumstances "may relate only to 'a particular aircraft on a particular day', which cannot apply to a passenger denied boarding because of the rescheduling of flights as a result of extraordinary circumstances affecting an earlier flight. The concept of 'extraordinary circumstances' is intended to limit the obligations of an air carrier - or even exempt it from those obligations - when the event in question could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken. As the Advocate General observed in point 53 of his Opinion, if such a carrier is obliged to cancel a scheduled flight on the day of a strike by airport staff and then takes the decision to reschedule its later flights, that carrier cannot in any way be considered to be constrained by that strike to deny boarding to a passenger who has duly presented himself for boarding two days after the flight's cancellation," the high court wrote.
The court concluded that Finnair is free to seek reimbursement from Barcelona airport for causing the denied boarding incidents in the first place, noting that doing so "may reduce or even remove the financial burden borne by the air carriers" because of the law.
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