Extraordinary circumstances leads to the ordinary EU 261 rejection from Aer Lingus

Aer Lingus rejected Jonathan Loughran’s claim for EU 261 compensation. According to Aer Lingus, extraordinary circumstances were in effect, thus exempting the airline from paying the claim.

Surprise, surprise.

EU 261, the air traveler protection regulation that covers flights to and from countries in the European Union, provides that passengers on delayed and canceled flights must receive compensation from the airlines. However, the law contains an exemption for extraordinary circumstances, which allows the airlines to deny claims for EU 261 compensation.

Unfortunately for many air travelers, EU 261 doesn’t clearly define extraordinary circumstances. Our advocates suspect that EU 261’s lack of clarity allows many airlines to get away with availing themselves of the exemption in questionable instances. But did extraordinary circumstances actually exist in Loughran’s case?

So, what are extraordinary circumstances?

Extraordinary circumstances are those over which the airlines have no control. The text of EU 261 defines extraordinary circumstances as

…cases where an event has been caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken. Such circumstances may, in particular, occur in cases of political instability, meteorological conditions incompatible with the operation of the flight concerned, security risks, unexpected flight safety shortcomings and strikes that affect the operation of an operating air carrier.

But this is at best a vague definition. We’ve been seeing airlines invoke it in situations that appear to be controllable.

Could Aer Lingus have avoided this situation?

Loughran’s flight from Los Angeles to Dublin was delayed when a luggage loading vehicle collided with the aircraft at the gate, requiring an inspection. The delay lasted three and a half hours.

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Passengers on flights subject to EU 261 of more than 3,500 kilometers are entitled to compensation of 600 euros ($735) per person. Loughran, who was flying with his wife and infant son, believes his family should have received 1,800 euros from Aer Lingus:

This type of mechanical issue is specifically excluded under extraordinary circumstances (such as [an] air traffic control strike) that would absolve them of compensation, I believe. The EU ruled that mobile stairs colliding with a plane is not extraordinary circumstances, so it should follow that the luggage loading vehicle be treated the same.

The case Loughran is referring to involved a Condor flight canceled because of damage resulting from an aircraft colliding with mobile boarding stairs. The court found that “such mobile stairs or gangways are indispensable to air passenger transport, enabling passengers to enter or leave the aircraft, and, accordingly, air carriers are regularly faced with situations arising from their use. … Consequently, such an event cannot be categorized as ‘extraordinary circumstances’ exempting the air carrier from its obligation to pay the passengers compensation in the event of a long delay to a flight.”

Aer Lingus’ response

Loughran submitted his claim to Aer Lingus’ customer service. After waiting more than 40 days for a response, he received a denial of his claim from a guest relations executive named Christine, based on extraordinary circumstances.

While awaiting this reply, Loughran might have used our executive contact information for Aer Lingus to escalate his case. Instead, he asked our advocacy team for help with his EU 261 compensation claim.

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Appealing an EU 261 compensation denial

Our advocate, Michelle Couch-Friedman, suggested that Loughran write to Aer Lingus to request an explanation of the delay. When Aer Lingus refused to provide this, Loughran filed a complaint with the Commission for Aviation Regulation, Ireland’s national enforcement body for EU 261.

Although national enforcement bodies can’t provide compensation to air passengers for delays or cancellations of flights subject to EU 261, they can require airlines to explain the reasons for their claim denials. And if those reasons don’t pass the smell test, EU 261 allows the national enforcement bodies to sanction the airlines.

Loughran has promised to notify us when he receives a response from the Commission for Aviation Regulation. Our advocates don’t believe they can assist him further with his case. We are writing about it to encourage our readers to file complaints about questionable EU 261 compensation denials with the respective national enforcement bodies of the European Union. Hopefully, the EU will come up with a more transparent definition of extraordinary circumstances and close this loophole.

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

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