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ECJ: Ryanair must compensate passengers stranded by ash cloud

ATW Daily News by Anne Paylor 4 Feb.13

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that Ryanair must compensate passengers stranded due to the 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Ryanair has warned the landmark ruling against the airline “will materially increase the cost of flying across Europe.”

European law states that, if a flight is cancelled, the air carrier is obliged to “provide care” to passengers as well as compensation. Providing care is defined as providing refreshments, meals and—where appropriate—hotel accommodation, airport transfers, and a means of communication with third parties free of charge. This obligation exists even when the cancellation is caused by “extraordinary circumstances,” except the carrier is not required to pay compensation if it can prove the flight cancellation was caused by such circumstances.

The case was brought before the Dublin Metropolitan District Court (Ireland), which referred to the ECJ for a decision on whether the ash cloud disruptions over Europe went beyond the category of “extraordinary circumstances” and if the carrier was therefore exempt from providing care. The ECJ responded it did not recognize different degrees of “extraordinary circumstances” and confirmed that, in any event, these do not release carriers from their obligation to provide care.

In addition, the ECJ stated there was no defined limitation, either temporal or monetary, on the obligation to provide care. It stated: “All the obligations to provide care to passengers are imposed on the air carrier for the whole period during which the passengers concerned must await their re-routing.”

The court acknowledged that the obligation to provide care “entails financial consequences for air carriers,” but stressed that the protection of passengers “may justify even substantial negative economic consequences for certain economic operators.” However, it pointed out that carriers could “pass on the costs incurred as a result of that obligation to airline ticket prices.”

In a statement, Ryanair said it regretted the ECJ ruling, which it said “now makes the airlines the insurer of last resort even when in the majority of cases (such as ATC delays or national strikes in Europe) these delays are entirely beyond an airline’s control.”

The airline warned: “Consumer airfares will increase as airlines will be obliged to recover the cost of these claims from their customers, because the defective European regulation does not allow us to recover such costs from the governments or unions who are responsible for over 95% of flight delays in Europe.”

Ryanair said the decision had “no retrospective impact” for the airline as all other ash-related claims had already been settled.