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Aviation

EJC: Petrol on the airport runway an extraordinary circumstance

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Legal news
calendar 3 October 2019
globus Denmark, Sweden, Norway

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has recently established that a long delay of a flight, which occurs due to a spillage of petrol on the airport runway, is an extraordinary circumstance which constitutes an exemption from the obligation of the air carrier to pay compensation to a passenger. This applies when the petrol does not originate from the aircraft taking off.  

According to the EC Regulation 261/2004, a passenger has the right to receive compensation from the operating air carrier when a flight is cancelled or delayed by more than three hours. An exemption to this right applies when the cancellation or delay is caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided, even though, all reasonable measures had been taken by the air carrier. The Regulation does not list all the events that fall within the concept of extraordinary circumstances, this is left to the CJEU to decide through case law.

In the present matter, a passenger was delayed by more than three hours on his flight from Treviso in Italy to Charleroi in Belgium. With reference to the Regulation, the passenger claimed 250 € from the air carrier Ryanair Ltd in compensation for the delay. The delay was caused by a spillage of petrol which caused closing of the airport runway for more than two hours. Ryanair stated that the presence of petrol on the runway, which caused the delay, fell within the scope of an extraordinary circumstance. Therefore, the air carrier claimed that it was not obligated to pay compensation to the passenger. 

Consequently, it was up to the CJEU to decide whether a spillage of petrol on the airport runway constitutes an extraordinary circumstance which exonerates the air carrier from the obligation to compensate passengers when a flight is significantly delayed.

An extraordinary circumstance which could not have been avoided

In its verdict, the CJEU found that a spilling of petrol on the airport runway neither by its nature or origin is inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier concerned. The Court also referred to the judgement C-501/17 (Germanwings) where it was emphasized that the maintenance of the airport runway is the responsibility of the airport authorities and is in no way within the competence of the air carrier. Furthermore, the decision of the competent airport authorities to close runways at an airport is binding on air carriers.

Therefore, the EJC established that a spilling of petrol, which leads to closing of the airport runway and significant delay of a flight, is covered by the concept of extraordinary circumstances. Yet, the Court emphasized that the concept only applies where the petrol in question does not origin from an aircraft of the air carrier which operated the flight.

Furthermore, the CJEU specified that the presence of petrol on an airport runway, which leads to the closure of that runway, must be regarded as a circumstance which could not have been avoided if all reasonable measures was taken. For that reason, the spilling of petrol in the present matter fell within the concept of extraordinary circumstances. Accordingly, the air carrier Ryanair was released of its obligation to compensate the passenger for the delayed flight.

IUNO’s opinion

The judgement emphasizes that the maintenance of the airport runways is the responsibility of the airport authorities. Consequently, the spilling of petrol on the runway is not inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier and is beyond the effective control of the air carrier. The air carrier is, therefore, not responsible for cancellations and delays of flights, which occur because of lack in the maintenance of the airport runways, as this would be too big of a burden for the air carrier concerned.

According to the EC Regulation 261/2004, a passenger has the right to receive compensation from the operating air carrier when a flight is cancelled or delayed by more than three hours. An exemption to this right applies when the cancellation or delay is caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided, even though, all reasonable measures had been taken by the air carrier. The Regulation does not list all the events that fall within the concept of extraordinary circumstances, this is left to the CJEU to decide through case law.

In the present matter, a passenger was delayed by more than three hours on his flight from Treviso in Italy to Charleroi in Belgium. With reference to the Regulation, the passenger claimed 250 € from the air carrier Ryanair Ltd in compensation for the delay. The delay was caused by a spillage of petrol which caused closing of the airport runway for more than two hours. Ryanair stated that the presence of petrol on the runway, which caused the delay, fell within the scope of an extraordinary circumstance. Therefore, the air carrier claimed that it was not obligated to pay compensation to the passenger. 

Consequently, it was up to the CJEU to decide whether a spillage of petrol on the airport runway constitutes an extraordinary circumstance which exonerates the air carrier from the obligation to compensate passengers when a flight is significantly delayed.

An extraordinary circumstance which could not have been avoided

In its verdict, the CJEU found that a spilling of petrol on the airport runway neither by its nature or origin is inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier concerned. The Court also referred to the judgement C-501/17 (Germanwings) where it was emphasized that the maintenance of the airport runway is the responsibility of the airport authorities and is in no way within the competence of the air carrier. Furthermore, the decision of the competent airport authorities to close runways at an airport is binding on air carriers.

Therefore, the EJC established that a spilling of petrol, which leads to closing of the airport runway and significant delay of a flight, is covered by the concept of extraordinary circumstances. Yet, the Court emphasized that the concept only applies where the petrol in question does not origin from an aircraft of the air carrier which operated the flight.

Furthermore, the CJEU specified that the presence of petrol on an airport runway, which leads to the closure of that runway, must be regarded as a circumstance which could not have been avoided if all reasonable measures was taken. For that reason, the spilling of petrol in the present matter fell within the concept of extraordinary circumstances. Accordingly, the air carrier Ryanair was released of its obligation to compensate the passenger for the delayed flight.

IUNO’s opinion

The judgement emphasizes that the maintenance of the airport runways is the responsibility of the airport authorities. Consequently, the spilling of petrol on the runway is not inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier and is beyond the effective control of the air carrier. The air carrier is, therefore, not responsible for cancellations and delays of flights, which occur because of lack in the maintenance of the airport runways, as this would be too big of a burden for the air carrier concerned.

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