A judge has ruled that the airline was wrong to refuse compensation to passengers under EU Regulation 261/2004.
EU law says that airlines must pay up to €600 compensation for flights that are delayed by three hours or more.
The only defence is where the delay is caused by "extraordinary circumstances". No definition of "extraordinary circumstances" exists in the legislation, but cases have determined that it must be something which is outside the normal activity of the airline and beyond its actual control. The Regulation itself provides some examples, such as freak weather conditions, acts of terrorism or strikes by air traffic controllers.
Air traffic controllers are the people making decisions about which flights can take off and land at airports. Without them, it would not be possible to operate a major airport safely. For this reason, when air traffic controllers go on strike, airlines normally have a valid defence that any delays are caused by "extraordinary circumstances" outside of their control.
However, Woodfines were able to argue successfully that a strike by French air traffic control was not a legitimate reason to refuse compensation to passengers on a flight from Malaga to Newcastle that had been scheduled to pass through French airspace at the time.
The reason for this? Woodfines were able to argue successfully that French air traffic controllers go on strike all the time, meaning that such strikes could not be considered outside the normal activity of the airline or beyond its control. In submissions to the Court, Christopher Walke of Woodfines explained:
"Air traffic control is an integral part of the normal everyday activity of air passenger travel, providing services at take-off, landing and in-flight. Air carriers are confronted as a matter of course with strikes by air traffic controllers. This is because air traffic controllers comprise a relatively small number of specialists who are highly respected for their skills but who also enjoy marketpower through their ability to withhold those same skills. Such strikes are therefore not unexpected or unforeseeable. Rather, they are intrinsically linked to the nature of the services being provided and do not fall with the concept of “extraordinary circumstances”.
The judge agreed saying: "Strikes by air traffic controllers are intrinsically linked to the nature of the services being provided and do not fall within the concept of ‘extraordinary circumstances’".
Although the decision is not legally binding in other courts, it is the lead decision on the issue of air traffic control strikes and demonstrates that there is no such thing as a "blanket defence" when it comes to flight compensation claims. Each case turns on its own facts.
If your flight was delayed for three hours or more, travelling to or from a European destination or aboard a European airline, contact Woodfines to find out if you are entitled to compensation today.
A recent report on the economic impact of air traffic control strikes commissioned by the AE4 group of airlines estimated that that on average 1.5 million passengers are affected by strike delays every year. The Civil Aviation Authority predicts that in 2016 alone 0.4% of all delays were for 3 hours or more, meaning that if every one of those passengers was entitled to €400, as in the present case, that would be an extra €2.4 million in compensation available to passengers.