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Airlines must pay for flight cancellations

[December 24th 2008]

The European Court of Justice has ruled that airlines must pay for flight cancellations caused by technical problems.

The European Court was asked to make a ruling following a claim for compensation by an Austrian family after an engine defect on an Alitalia flight meant they missed their connecting flight.

Alitalia cancelled the flight from Vienna to Brindisi via Rome back in 2005 due to a “complex engine defect in the turbine”, but passengers were only told five minutes before the scheduled departure time.

However, Alitalia had been informed of the defect after a routine check during the night before the early morning flight. A European Parliament regulation dated February 11th 2004 states that passengers are entitled to compensation unless they are informed about a flight cancellation “in due time”.

But airlines are not obliged to pay compensation if they can prove that a flight cancellation is caused by “extraordinary circumstances” which could not have been avoided if all reasonable measures had been taken.

In this case, the European Court advise that “technical problems which come to light during maintenance of aircraft or on account of failure to carry out such maintenance do not constitute, in themselves, ‘extraordinary circumstances’ “.

The Court adds: “However, it is not ruled out that technical problems are covered by ‘exceptional circumstances’ to the extent that they stem from events which are not inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier concerned and are beyond its actual control”.

As an example, the Court states the case where an aircraft manufacturer informs airlines that aircraft already in service are affected by a hidden manufacturing defect. Acts of sabotage and terrorism would also be “exceptional circumstances”.

Alitalia originally refused to pay the compensation of 250 euros plus 10 euros for telephone charges claimed by the Wallentin-Hermann family. The family were transferred to an Austrian Airlines flight to Rome but arrived 20 minutes after the departure of their connecting flight to Brindisi and as a result got home almost four hours later than expected.