European Court of Justice rules on KLM Passenger Rights case

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Today a landmark ruling in the case of Van der Lans vs KLM was delivered in the European Court of Justice, which has put an end to the widely-abused excuse of “technical problems” to wriggle out of EC 261/2004 compensation payments to passengers.

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A quick précis: The EC261 directive lays out a schedule of compensation due to passengers under certain scenarios and the duty of care that airlines have when delays do happen. The compensation amount ranges from €250-€600 per passenger, and airlines were previously exempt from paying this if they could prove “extraordinary circumstances” were the cause.

The case of Van der Lans vs KLM rested on whether “technical problems” could be classed as “extraordinary circumstances”. Here the engine fuel pump and hydro-mechanical units ‘unexpectedly' malfunctioned before the rated lifetime as determined by the manufacturer.

In other precedents it had been made clear that technical problems that arise due to a lack of routine maintenance was inadmissible to reject consumer claims, but what about spontaneous and seemingly random (in a statistical sense) failure? Can airlines really be held accountable despite not being responsible?

In today's judgment, Paragraph 49 reads:

… a technical problem…which occurred unexpectedly, which is not attributable to poor maintenance and which was also not detected during routine maintenance checks, does not fall within the definition of ‘extraordinary circumstances’ within the meaning of that provision.

And for further explanation in Paragraphs 41 and 42:

…it must be observed, first, that it is true that a breakdown, such as that at issue in the main proceedings, caused by the premature malfunction of certain components of an aircraft, constitutes an unexpected event. Nevertheless, such a breakdown remains intrinsically linked to the very complex operating system of the aircraft, which is operated by the air carrier in conditions, particularly meteorological conditions, which are often difficult or even extreme, it being understood moreover that no component of an aircraft lasts forever.

Therefore, it must be held that, in the course of the activities of an air carrier, that unexpected event is inherent in the normal exercise of an air carrier’s activity, as air carriers are confronted as a matter of course with unexpected technical problems.

In other words: If you fly the plane properly and something breaks, the airline's at fault.

The decision will no doubt permit many more passengers to submit claims. This press release from Bott & Co Solicitors, who were the counsel for the famous Huzar vs Jet2 case, claims today's ruling will bring benefits worth £4.5 million to its clients – I dare not speculate how much it could be across the whole EU!

However, if in future you come across a situation where you need to claim EC261 compensation, don't expect the airlines will let you reach into their pockets. With low cost carriers deploying delay tactics by suspending domestic court cases pending the outcome of this European Court of Justice case, it is still up to consumers to take the airlines to court on an individual basis if they repeatedly refuse to pay – even when you are in the right.

My advice is to download the “Your rights” app by the EU Commission, and keep it at hand in case you ever need it. If you are ever stranded, you might be able to show a customer service desk at an airport what your rights are, especially if they try to make you sign a waiver without your consent!

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