Technical Problems, Compensation and ‘Extraordinary Circumstances’: What Your Airline is Liable for When Your Flight is Delayed

Towards the end of last year, a landmark case at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that airlines are liable for delays to passengers caused by technical problems. Van der Lans v KLM is now recognised as not only one of the highest rulings on this issue, but is also binding across all European courts.

Putting the spotlight on international airlines around the world, the case saw a significant victory for passengers looking to claim compensation for flight delays. So if you’ve been a victim of these exasperating delays or you find yourself victim to them at some point in the future, make sure you know your rights and can claim the compensation you’re entitled to.

The Details of the Case

Corina van der Lans flew from Ecuador to Amsterdam in August 2009, on a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight that was delayed for 29 hours. The delay was due to the discovery of defective components on the plane, including the engine fuel pump and the hydro mechanical unit. Replacement parts weren’t available at the airport and had to be flown in from Amsterdam for installation.

The existing European flight delay regulation EC 261/2004 holds that passengers delayed by three hours or more are entitled to up to €600 (approximately $930 AUD) from the airline, as long as the delay wasn’t caused by ‘extraordinary circumstances’. But what makes circumstances ‘extraordinary’ isn’t defined in the regulation, which gave KLM cause to refuse Van der Lans’ initial request for compensation.

She took the airline to court, arguing that technical problems are not ‘extraordinary circumstances’. KLM on the other hand, argued that ‘spontaneous’ technical problems that were unexpected and unforeseeable – and not detected during routine maintenance – are ‘extraordinary circumstances’.

The court stated that all technical faults are inherent in the normal exercise of an airline’s activity and ultimately ruled in her favour – and subsequently, in favour of consumers everywhere.

What it Means for Travellers

As a traveller, this landmark ruling means that claiming compensation for flight delays will now be much easier. The ECJ is a higher authority than the Supreme Court, giving the majority of valid claims a much greater chance of being paid out.

Now, the only defence airlines can use against paying compensation is when the delay is caused by circumstances that are considered ‘extraordinary’ and out of their control, such as poor weather, natural disasters or industrial action. This is ultimately a positive step in the right direction for consumer rights and aviation law.

So while many people are lucky enough to never have to experience the frustration and uncertainty of a long delayed flight – especially internationally – it’s encouraging to know that those who do go through it will be able to get the compensation they deserve.

Your Rights in Flight

Even with international travel insurance, which will cover your costs for getting you to your destination on a later flight or returning home, it’s important to know what airlines will (and won’t) cover you for as well if you’re heavily delayed.

Compensation for travel delays is currently only relevant to international airlines within the European Union (EU). In Australia, the guidelines for compensation aren’t as clear and many airlines will have their own individual policies for such situations, so if you’re travelling on an Australian airline make sure you check their terms and conditions before flying with them.

Australian airlines don’t generally guarantee their timetables, but if your flight was delayed or cancelled and it was because of something within their control (any circumstances that aren’t considered ‘extraordinary’), most airlines will either carry you on another scheduled flight as soon as possible or give you a refund.

Some airlines will also provide meals, refreshments, accommodation and transfers appropriate to how long the delay is (but this is entirely at each individual airline’s discretion).

The important thing to remember here though, is that just because Australia doesn’t have any specific regulation about flight delays it doesn’t mean you can’t still take a valid complaint further. Regardless of what airlines cover in their terms and conditions, as a consumer you will always have rights under the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 and state fair trading laws.

So if an airline – Australian or international – doesn’t deliver an adequate service by taking reasonable steps to help you when your flight is delayed, you don’t have to put up with it. Send a written complaint to the airline, and if they’re not willing to do anything about it, you can lodge a formal complaint with your state department of consumer affairs or fair trading, and the industry-funded body the Airline Consumer Advocate.

These organisations are there to help consumers exercise their rights – so make sure you do.

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