(CN) - Finland's airline should compensate passengers who were involuntarily bumped from flights after an airport strike disrupted flight schedules, an adviser to Europe's high court said Thursday.
Timy Lassooy filed suit after Finnair bumped him from a flight to Helsinki in July 2006. The airline used seats on Lassooy's flight to accommodate passengers left stranded by the strike at Barcelona's airport three days earlier, during which Finnair canceled several flights.
Finland's high court referred the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union, seeking a clarification of the concept of "denied boarding." Under European law, airlines must accommodate and compensate passengers who are denied boarding for any reason other than extraordinary circumstances or when a passenger's behavior or health risks the safety of the flight.
Finnair argued that it should not have to compensate passengers for something beyond its control, like an airport workers' strike that hampers airline operations. Not so, Advocate General Yves Bot found.
"The concept of denied boarding must be interpreted broadly and cannot be limited to overbooking," he wrote.
"To accept that only situations of overbooking are covered by the concept of denied boarding would have the effect of depriving passengers in Mr Lassooy's situation of all protection," Bot added.
"Indeed, it should be remembered that Mr Lassooy, in the main proceedings, duly presented himself for boarding, which was denied him following the decision taken by Finnair to reschedule its flights and to give priority to the air passengers whose flight had been cancelled two days previously owing to a strike. The flight for which Mr Lassooy had a reservation left at the time and on the day scheduled."
Allowing Finnair to justify its denial of Lassooy's claim might tempt other airlines to evade their obligations to passengers under EU law, the advocate general found.
"Finnair alone took the decision to reschedule the flights and such a decision cannot have the effect of depriving an air passenger who has duly presented himself for boarding of all protection," Bot wrote.
While it was true that Finnair was not responsible for the airport strike, the airline does have a legal responsibility is to take care of its passengers. Finnair has the right to seek reimbursement from Barcelona's airport under the same law.
Bot disagreed that the rule violates the EU's principle of equal treatment to compensate passengers who are denied boarding because of extraordinary circumstances, while not compensating a passenger whose flight is delayed or canceled.
"Contrary to what the Finnish government maintains, I do not think that passengers who are the victims of a flight cancellation or delay are in the same position as passengers to whom the air carrier has denied boarding," the opinion states. "Denied boarding does not affect all the passengers on a flight, but one or more passengers who have nevertheless duly presented themselves for boarding. Simply on the arbitrary decision of the air carrier, the passenger who has been denied boarding will not be on the flight for which he had a reservation, a flight which will be operated in accordance with scheduling arranged by the air carrier."
"Simply by making that decision, the air carrier makes one or more passengers selected completely arbitrarily suffer trouble and inconvenience. For that reason, because the harm suffered is attributable to the air carrier, compensation is payable in order to dissuade the carrier from resorting to such a practice and to give more importance to calling for volunteers to surrender their reservations."
The judges of the court will now begin their deliberations of the case with Bot's recommendation in mind.
In a similar case last month, the court ordered Ryanair to reimburse customers left stranded when a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland blanketed the skies with ash.
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