Reinforcement of air passengers rights by the ECJ and the Spanish Supreme court

Two recent judgments by reinforce air passenger rights in their relationship with airlines and ticketing websites when buying airlines tickets. In both cases, passenger will come out better protected in case their flight is canceled by the airline or in case they decide themselves not to use (part of) a booked airline ticket.

Reimbursement of canceled tickets

On 12 September 2018, the European Court of Justice decided that, in the event of a flight cancellation, the ticket refund must include the amount paid as commission, unless that commission was added without the knowledge of the airline (Case C-601/17, DM and Others v Vueling Airlines SA).

The request for a preliminary ruling was made in the context of a dispute in front of the Amtsgericht Hamburg (Local Court, Hamburg, Germany), between a German passenger and Spanish low cost airline Vueling.

The passenger in question bought a ticket from Berlin to Faro on online ticketing website for the price of 1.108,88 euro. The overall price of the ticket included the actual cost for the tickets of 1.031,88 euro and the handling fee for of 77 euro. As the flight was cancelled, the passenger asked the airline for a refund based on EU Regulation 261/2004. Vueling went on to reimburse only the ticket price, with deduction of’s handling fee of 77 euro.

In its judgment the Court now confirms that under Article 8, 1, a) of EU Regulation 261/2004, in case of cancellation, passengers are entitled to reimbursement of “the full cost of the ticket at the price at which it was bought”. According to the ECJ, this includes a commission collected by an intermediary from a passenger when a ticket was bought must, in principle, be regarded as a component of the price to be reimbursed to that passenger in the event of cancellation of the flight. That is unless at least, insofar that that commission was set without the knowledge of the air carrier, which it is for the referring court to ascertain.

No cancellation of unused airline tickets

Another very interesting decisions comes to us from Spain, where the Spanish Supreme court decided on 20 November 2018 that an airline cannot cancel a ticket if a passenger misses (part of) a flight and passengers should be able to use any or all parts of a ticket as they wish.

As a general rule today, airlines will automatically cancel airline tickets if the passenger misses or does not use any part of the booked flight. This is the case for connected flights or out-and-return tickets. This prevents travelers from booking attractive flight deals from nearby cities and missing the first segment and simply hopping on at a later time. Essentially, if you want fly from Brussels to Paris, and then onto New York and back on one ticket, if you miss the Brussels to Paris leg of the journey, the entire remaining itinerary is automatically cancelled by the airline.

Spain’s Supreme Court has now confirmed that this goes against basic consumer protection and contract law. In the eyes of the court, an airline cannot cancel a passengers ticket in the event of a no show, since the passenger paid for all the flights. The passengers only obligation under the contract was paying, and they did that. The fact that they did not actually use part of what they paid for cannot lead to the loss of the entire ticket.

This case, for the time being, is an isolated decision by the Spanish Supreme Court, but it might in the future have implications for anyone traveling within Europe. The airline – Spanish national carrier Iberia in this case- will be forced to respect this decision, and since it cannot discriminate travelers within the EU, it will be forced to apply the same rule on all of its flights, even outside Spain. It now remains to be seen if this question will in the near future also find its way to the ECJ and if so, if it then will be confirmed on a European level.

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