Skift Take

In passenger rights cases, U.S. airlines should be bound by European laws when transporting passengers in Europe.

The European Union’s Court of Justice ruled ruled on Thursday that passengers departing from or flying to an airport in a member state should be entitled to compensation when denied boarding not just because of overbooking, but also when they are turned away for operational reasons.

“Consequently, limiting the scope of ‘denied boarding’ exclusively to cases of overbooking would have the practical effect of substantially reducing the protection afforded to passengers, by denying them all protection, even if they find themselves in a situation for which, as in the case of overbooking, they are not responsible,” the court decided.

Two Iberia tickets

The case grew out of the experience of two Iberia passengers who bought tickets to fly from Corunna, Spain, to Santo Domingo, with a stop in Madrid. The first flight experienced a 1 hour and 25 minute delay, and Iberia canceled the duo’s boarding passes for the connecting flight in Madrid.

However, the two passengers showed up at final boarding for the Madrid to Santo Domingo leg, and were denied boarding because their boarding passes had been nixed, and their seats doled out to other passengers, the court said. The two passengers in question took another flight to Santo Domingo the next day and arrived 27 hours late, and are seeking compensation.

In 2004, the European Parliament adopted a wide-ranging law to provide passenger compensation in instances of denied boarding situations, long flight delays and flight cancellations. Passengers have the right to be compensated immediately, reimbursed for their tickets, put up in a hotel when awaiting a subsequent flight, or re-routed to their final destination.

In its October 4 ruling, the court held that airlines must compensate passengers when the passenger did not cause the denial of boarding, and when it is attributable to the airline for operational reasons, and not just because of overbooking.

What about Americans flying into Europe?

A court in Spain referred the Iberia case to the European Union’s Court of Justice to get its interpretation of the European Union law; now the national court must decide the case for itself. But, the EU ruling will inform the handling of such cases in other member states, as well.

While it would seem that the law should apply to passengers of any citizenry departing from or flying into an airport in a European member state, U.S. airlines have fought that interpretation.

Christopher Fretwell, a spokesman for the EU court says: “I can tell you that the Regulation applies to all passengers on all flights leaving the EU, regardless of the airline, and all flights into or out of the EU by EU airlines. It does therefore apply to American passengers on such flights.” 

A court case in Illinois involving United Airlines could have a lot to say about deciding the issue.


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