Loose screws on the runway can be extraordinary circumstances (April, 2019)

On 4 April 2019, the Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed that the malfunctioning of an aircraft tyre as a result of impact with a screw lying on the runway is not inherent, by its nature or origin, in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier.

Facts

A German passenger, Mr. Pauels, booked a flight from Dublin to Düsseldorf with Germanwings. The flight was delayed by more than 3 hours.

Germanwings refused to pay compensation on the ground that the delay was due to damage to an aircraft tyre, which was caused by a screw lying on the runway. Germanwings contended that this was to be regarded as an extraordinary circumstance, for which it was exempted from paying compensation under Regulation No. 261/2004.

The case was brought before the Landgericht Köln, which decided to refer a question to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling in order to ascertain whether this does in fact amount to extraordinary circumstances.

The Court’s decision

The court reiterates that events may be classified as extraordinary circumstances if, by their nature or origin, they are not inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier and are outside the air carrier’s actual control.

The Court considers that, although air carriers are regularly faced with damage to tyres, where the malfunctioning at issue is the sole result of the impact of a foreign object (e.g. a screw on the runway), such malfunctioning cannot be regarded as intrinsically linked to the operating system of that aircraft.

This is in line with the Court’s Pešková and Peška decision in which it held that damage to an aircraft caused by its collision with a bird.

In addition, in view of the particular constraints to which the air carrier is subject during take-off and landing operations and of the fact that the air carrier is not responsible for clearing the runway, such circumstances are outside that carrier’s actual control.

However, an air carrier is to be released from its obligation to pay passengers compensation only if it can prove that it adopted measures appropriate to the situation, deploying all its resources in terms of staff or equipment and the financial means at its disposal in order to avoid that situation from resulting in the cancellation or long delay of the flight in question, without the air carrier being required to make intolerable sacrifices in the light of the capacities of its undertaking at the relevant time.

The Court then hinted that aircraft tyres are subject to regular checks and changed according to standard procedures under which air carriers are able to have at their disposal, in the airports from which they operate, including those which are not their principal hubs, contracts with air maintenance companies for changing their tyres under which they are afforded priority treatment for changing tyres.

As such, it will be up to the air carrier to prove that, notwithstanding the fact that maintenance contracts were in place and relied upon, the malfunctioning tyre still caused a delay beyond its control.

 

Click here for access to the full decision.

For further information about passengers’ rights in the EU, feel free to contact our Brussels based partner Giulia Mauri at giulia.mauri@pierstone.com or our Senior Associate Hannes Abraham at hannes.abraham@pierstone.com.