When Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in April 2010, many air passengers were stranded all over Europe. Denise McDonagh was one of those air passengers. On March 22, 2012, in Denise McDonagh v Ryanair Ltd.in Case C-12/11, Advocate General Yves Bot of the Court of Justice for the European Union held that Articles 5 and 9 of EC Regulation No. 261/2004 required the airline to provide her with food and accommodations while she was stranded.
Denise McDonagh brought her case in Dublin Metropolitan Court after her Ryanair return flight to Ireland was cancelled due to the disruption of air service caused by the eruption. Ms. McDonagh was stranded for a week during the ash cloud crisis. In her claim, she alleged that Articles 5 and 9 of EC Regulation No. 261/2004 required Ryanair to provide her with care, in particular meals and hotel accommodations. The Dublin Court referred her case to the CJEU to consider three questions (1) whether the closure of the airspace due to natural occurrence exempted the airline from having to provide care; (2) whether the regulation contains an implied limitation on the amount of care Ryanair needed to provide; (3) and if there were no exemption or limitation, whether the regulation was in violation of the principles of “proportionality” or “non-discrimination,” or the principle of “equitable balance of interests” espoused by the Montreal Convention.
The CJEU opinion answered all three questions in McDonagh’s favor. Advocate General Bot opined that although the Regulation explicitly exempts airlines from the requirement to provide compensation, it still requires them to provide care when cancellations are caused by “extraordinary circumstances” which is defined as “noti inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier concerned and is beyond the actual control of that carrier on account of its nature or origin.” Certainly the volcanic eruption, the opinion concludes, falls within that definition. Advocate General Bot also declined to read any implied limitation into the regulation, such as “proportionality,” “non-discrimination,” or “equitable balance of interests,” suggested by the airlines. Those principles had been previously dismissed in ECR I-403 IATA & ELFAA Case C‑344/04  on the grounds of non-discrimination or the Montreal Convention because of the airlines’ ability to pass costs on to consumers through ticket prices. Although the Advocate General’s opinion is not binding, full court judgments follow the Advocate General’s opinion in 80% of cases. The opinion will now be considerd by the full court, which will deliver a final verdict later this year.
As a result of this matter, EC officials are considering changes to the regulation that would limit airlines’ liability to provide care for “extended stretches due to events beyond their control.” New legislation is expected later this year that would limit airlines’ responsibility to case for stranded passenger.