The mystery of extraordinary circumstances unraveled

The strikes at Aviapartner at the end of October are considered to be extraordinary circumstances by the European passenger regulation (EU261). As a result of that, thousands of victims see the indemnification for their trouble go up in smoke.

At the end of October, Happy Flights had questions about the strikes at Aviapartner. Thousands of travelers had to change their itinerary or even saw the wheels coming off their holiday plans. Many of them now wonder whether they are entitled to compensation.

Unfortunately, strikes by third parties, in this case from the baggage handler Aviapartner, are seen as a form of extraordinary circumstances. This means that the airline is not responsible for the trouble caused and therefore should not pay any compensation.


When are the circumstances 'extraordinary'?

Because extraordinary circumstances release the airline from their legal obligation to compensate passengers, they are often referred to by the airline itself, in the communication about a delayed or canceled flight.

Some companies even keep it more vague and speak of "force majeure". But how can you as a passenger now know whether the circumstances are really 'extraordinary'?

Extraordinary circumstances include all situations which, despite taking all reasonable measures, could not be prevented by the airline. This is the case, for example, with:

    • Extreme weather conditions such as thunderstorms, snowfall or risky cloud formation
    • Measures of air traffic control or flight safety problems
    • Strikes from third parties (such as baggage handlers, air traffic controllers, ...)
    • An unfortunate encounter of the aircraft with one or more birds ("bird strike") causing damage to the aircraft.
    • Political instability
    • A medical emergency landing


Although this list is not exhaustive, it should be clear that the strikes at Aviapartner are regarded as exceptional circumstances and therefore do not give entitlement to compensation.


Situations that are often unfairly labeled as 'extraordinary'

Unfortunately, some situations are often labeled as 'extraordinary circumstances' incorrectly by the airlines. After all, they try to get out of their responsibilities to pay hundreds of euros in damages.

Just think of the strikes by ground and cabin staff at Ryanair this summer. There, the airline also claimed that the canceled flights were the result of force majeure, causing many people to lose hope about their chances of compensation. Fortunately, a lot of travelers came to Happy Flights and we were able to give them the advice to submit their claim.

But there is still some discussion about the accountability of the airline for other situations too. For example, it is still unclear whether a so-called "lightning strike", in which during the flight damage to the aircraft is caused by a lightning strike, must be regarded as a case of extraordinary circumstances. In the past, several judges (mainly in the United Kingdom) have judged that such a "lightning strike" is inherent in the aviation activities and therefore should not be an excuse for not paying the compensation.


Are you not entitled to anything under extraordinary circumstances?

Of course you are! When your flight is delayed or canceled due to extraordinary circumstances, the airline must still fulfill a number of obligations:

    • Providing assistance in relation to your flight problem
    • Offering an alternative flight (possibly with another airline)
    • Or refund your ticket


Right to assistance

Your right to assistance as an airline passenger means that you are entitled to (a) meal (s), drinks, hotel accommodation and airport transfer, in proportion to the severity and duration of the flight problem. For example, a hotel stay only applies when a stay of one or more nights (possibly on top of the originally planned stay) becomes necessary. If you do not get assistance from the airline, you can keep track of all your payment receipts to recover (part of) your costs afterwards.

Note that costs for lost hotel stays, planned activities, car rental, paid parking places and the like can often not be recovered. Under the European Regulation, the airline is only required to reimburse meals, drinks, hotel accommodation and airport transfer - in proportion to the duration and severity of your delay.


An alternative flight

As a passenger you have a sales contract with the airline. That means that they have committed themselves to bringing you from one location to another. Even when exceptional circumstances arise, the airline must keep this promise.

If your flight is canceled due to an extraordinary circumstance such as strikes from third parties or an ominous storm, then the airline must offer you an alternative flight to reach your destination.

Did you know that this flight can also take place via another airline? Many airlines have mutual cooperation agreements. Even if the airline you were flying with could not offer a flight yourself, you better keep insisting on a place on board another flight, with another company. Only in this way can you (often without too much loss of time) obtain an alternative flight without additional costs and reach your destination within a reasonable period of time.

We hear you thinking "Why go through all that trouble, if you can also book another flight yourself?". Many travelers are convinced that when they themselves book a new flight, they will be able to recover these costs from the airline afterwards. Some companies even take it a step further by confirming (usually by telephone) that they will do this. Nothing could be further from the truth. According to the European Regulation, airlines cannot be obliged to reimburse the additional cost of self-booked alternative flights.

So our advice is "better prevention than cure" and experience tells us that passengers who are well-informed usually also get what they are entitled to.


Refund of your ticket

Does the airline really fail to offer you a sufficient alternative? Or have you decided to travel with an alternative means of transport? Then you can still choose to have your original ticket refunded.

Please note that it is more difficult to discover this price with some airlines, because you have purchased a package price or a ticket there and back. So try to check exactly what you have paid before accepting a certain refund.

Once you have accepted the refund, the sales agreement will be dissolved and you will no longer be able to charge costs to the airline company.


The role of the travel office

If you book your trip through a travel agency, you have one big advantage. You have a point of contact when your travel plans risk to fall into the water, due to for instance a canceled flight or unforeseen circumstances such as a strike.

That is at least the case when you book a package trip. In that case, you have entered into a sales agreement with them, just as with an airline company. When this trip threatens to go wrong, the travel agent is your first point of contact to propose solutions and / or alternatives.

More specifically, the responsibilities of the travel agency are then regulated according to the renewed travel legislation that came into force on 1 July 2018. This new law also brings a lot of important points of attention for the operators of such package tours, in addition to the basic rights of the travelers.

When you only sell airline tickets, the travel agency has only entered into a contract with you as a traveler. His liability is then mainly limited to providing advice, correctly writing the flight ticket and providing the necessary information. In case of problems you can contact them for advice, but not for a refund, compensation or an alternative travel route.

Online Travel Agencies also need to include their responsibilities when something goes wrong with the trip you have booked with them. However, experience shows us that it is often difficult to have personal contact with an employee in order to discuss your concerns. Maybe a chatbot then?!  

Both for package holidays and individual tickets, we encourage travelers to call on travel experts in complex situations. This way you avoid afterwards that costs incurred cannot, for example, be recuperated.


Not entirely clear?

In some cases it is not clear whether or not there were exceptional circumstances. We therefore recommend that you have your file examined by us so that you do not avoid the chance of a favorable compensation.

Happy Flights legal
Britt Buseyne