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Compensation on Delayed Connecting Flights

Tuesday 05 March 2013

Passengers on connecting flights must be compensated when denied boarding as a result of a delay to the first flight caused by the airline, the European Court has ruled.

Since 2004, European regulations on compensation and assistance to passengers grants certain rights to air passengers departing from or flying to an airport located in the EEA.

Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 defines ‘denied boarding’ as the refusal by an air carrier to carry passengers, although they wish to travel and have presented themselves in time for boarding with a confirmed reservation.

With the exception of cases where there are grounds for a carrier to deny boarding (health, safety or security, or inadequate travel documentation), passengers are entitled to be compensated immediately, be reimbursed their tickets or be re-routed to their final destination and cared for while awaiting a later flight.

In the recent case heard by the ECJ a Spanish couple both bought airline tickets from the airline Iberia for the journey from Corunna (Spain) to Santo Domingo. The ticket comprised two flights: the flight Corunna-Madrid and the flight Madrid-Santo Domingo.

At the Iberia check-in counter at Corunna airport, they checked their luggage in direct to their final destination, and were given two boarding cards for the two successive flights.

The first flight was delayed by 1 hour and 25 minutes. In anticipation that the delay would result in the two passengers missing their connection in Madrid, Iberia cancelled their boarding cards for the second flight.

Despite that delay, on arrival in Madrid the applicants presented themselves at the departure gate in the final boarding call to passengers. The Iberia staff did not, however, allow them to board on the grounds that their boarding cards had been cancelled and their seats allocated to other passengers. They waited until the following day in order to be taken to Santo Domingo on another flight and reached their final destination 27 hours late.

Taking the view that Iberia had for no valid reason denied them boarding, the couple brought an action before the Spanish courts seeking a decision ordering Iberia to pay them compensation of €600 each, provided for by the regulation in respect of extra-Community flights of more than 3,500 kilometres.

In the course of the proceedings, Iberia argued that the situation in question was not denied boarding but a missed connection – which does not give rise to compensation – since the decision to deny the applicants boarding was not attributable to overbooking, but to the delay to the earlier flight.

In those circumstances, the national court asked the European Court of Justice whether the concept of ‘denied boarding’ refers exclusively to situations in which flights have been overbooked initially or whether that concept may be extended to cover other situations.

In its judgment made last month, the Court held that the concept of ‘denied boarding’ relates not only to cases of overbooking but also to those concerning other grounds, such as operational reasons.

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