Airlines must pay compensation to passengers whose flights are cancelled because of technical problems with the plane, European judges ruled this week.
The only exception, said the European Court of Justice, is if the technical problems are caused by extraordinary events outside the normal activities of the airline - such as terrorism or sabotage or a hidden manufacturing fault which suddenly comes to light.
The judges said it is up to the airline to prove that the circumstances are "extraordinary" - and complying with the minimum rules on aircraft maintenance does not necessarily excuse a refusal to compensate passengers if mechanical failure cancels a flight. The court was ruling in a legal tussle between Alitalia and an Austrian family whose flight from Vienna to Brindisi via Rome was cancelled five minutes before scheduled departure time. A switch to an Austrian Airlines flight meant missing the Rome connection to Brindisi, and arriving nearly four hours late. When Alitalia refused to pay compensation of 250 Euro and 10 Euro telephone costs, the family took legal action and won their case. But then Alitalia appealed to the Commercial Court in Vienna, which asked the EU court for clarification on Europe's rules on airline compensation. In their response, the Luxembourg judges said current EU rules give passengers the right to compensation "unless they are informed of the cancellation of the flight in due time". But airlines are not obliged to pay if they can prove that cancellation was caused by "extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken." In the Alitalia case, the flight had been cancelled because of "a complex engine defect in the turbine", which had been discovered the day before during a check. "In the light of the specific conditions in which carriage by air takes place, and the degree of technological sophistication of aircraft, air carriers are confronted as a matter of course in the exercise of their activity with various technical problems to which the operation of those aircraft inevitably gives rise" said the judgment. Correcting those technical problems, went on the judges, must be regarded as part of the normal exercise of an air carrier's activity: "Consequently, 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 European Court ruled: "An air carrier may not as a general rule refuse to pay compensation to passengers following the cancellation of a flight on account of technical problems in the aircraft." "Compensation may however be refused if the technical problems stem from events which, by their nature or origin, are not inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier and are beyond its actual control".