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Top EU court sides with passengers delayed on connecting flights

The judges found a 2005 law requiring airlines to compensate passengers whose flights are canceled or delayed applies to the entire journey if multiple flights were booked together.

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — Passengers with flights on separate airlines are still eligible for compensation if their trips are delayed, so long as they booked their tickets together, the European Union’s top court held Thursday. 

A passenger who traveled from Germany to Kansas City via Philadelphia is entitled to remuneration for the four-hour delay she experienced despite flying different airlines for the international and domestic legs of the journey, the European Court of Justice ruled. 

Flightright, a company that helps air passengers get compensation for delays, filed a complaint in a German court on behalf of an anonymous passenger under the EU's 2005 Flight Compensation Regulation. The legislation requires airlines to reimburse passengers in the EU for canceled or delayed flights. 

In July 2018, the passenger traveled from Stuttgart, Germany, to Zurich, Switzerland, via Swiss Air and then Zurich to Philadelphia and Philadelphia to Kansas City on American Airlines. The final leg of the journey was delayed by more than four hours. 

The passenger claimed that, under EU law, they were entitled to 600 euros ($590) for the delay. American Airlines argued it wasn’t bound by the EU regulation since the delayed flight took place entirely outside the bloc.

Initially, the Stuttgart Regional Court dismissed the claim because the flight was operated in the United States, not the EU, but on appeal the German Federal Court of Justice questioned whether the regulation applied to the entire journey and referred the case to the EU's highest court. 

The Luxembourg-based court ruled that, under the 2005 law, a connecting flight refers to any leg on a journey booked together and doesn’t have to be provided by the same air carrier.

“That is the case when two or more flights were booked as a single unit,” the court wrote. The tickets in this case, purchased through a travel agent, had been bought all together, with a single invoice and reservation number.  

Since the passenger's first flight departed from an EU member state, the regulation requiring compensation applies, the court found.

“The applicability of that regulation must be assessed with regard to the place of a flight’s initial departure and the place of its final destination,” the ruling states.

Any other conclusion, the judges found, would be “contrary to the objective of ensuring a high level of protection for passengers,” which was the purpose of the regulation. 

Compensation for delayed or canceled flights varies from 250 euros ($246) to 600 euros ($590) depending on the length of the delay and the distance of the flight. Although opposed by most of the airline industry, the EU is looking to expand the regulation to require carriers to inform customers about delays in a timely manner and provide refreshments to delayed passengers. 

The case now returns to the German court for a final ruling. 

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