Airlines are not likely to appreciate the verdict handed down by the EU Court of Justice, on 22 December 2008, in a case between a passenger and Alitalia concerning a cancelled flight (Case C-549/07). The ruling provides that, as a general rule, a carrier may not refuse to pay compensation to passengers for the cancellation of a flight on account of technical problems. Technical problems, the Court held, do not in themselves constitute extraordinary circumstances' justifying non-payment of the compensation required by Regulation 261/2004 on air passengers' rights.

This regulation lays down rules applying to overbooking, long delays or cancellation of flights departing from a Community airport. However, it contains grey zones that have led to disputes between airlines and passengers over entitlement to financial compensation. The concept of extraordinary circumstances' is one such grey area. According to the regulation, passengers are entitled to compensation - of between 250 and 600, depending on the length of the flight - in case of cancellation, unless such cancellation is caused by extraordinary circumstances', which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken. Airlines tend to make wide use of the argument of extraordinary circumstances' to keep from paying compensation. The Court's ruling will now make this practice more difficult.

The case concerned the cancellation of a flight caused by an engine defect discovered the day before during a check, but which could not be repaired immediately. Alitalia claimed that this situation represented extraordinary circumstances' and refused to pay compensation to a passenger claiming he was due under Regulation 261/2004. The conflict ended up before the EU Court of Justice, which had to determine whether the regulation should be interpreted to mean that a technical problem leading to cancellation of a flight is covered by extraordinary circumstances'. A recital in the regulation states that such circumstances may occur...

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