Frankfurt Airport Lufthansa
Travelers in Europe may find it easier to get compensated for flight delays. REUTERS/Alex Domanski

Two landmark rulings this week have opened the floodgates for any traveler in Europe seeking compensation for flight delays.

Denise McDonagh’s April 17, 2010, flight from Faro, Portugal, back to Dublin was cancelled because of the ash cloud emitted by Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which closed large swaths of European airspace between April 15 and April 22 that year. She asked Ryanair for $1,530 in damages to cover the cost of transportation, accommodation, meals and refreshments during the week she was forced to remain in Portugal, but the airline rejected her claim, saying that the ash cloud was due to “extraordinary circumstances.”

The case went to Dublin’s district court, which sent it to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, the highest court in the EU for interpreting and enforcing EU laws.

Advocate General Yves Bot ruled in the plaintiff’s favor last March, and that ruling has now been upheld by a court of law. As such, Ryanair must cover the costs that McDonagh incurred.

The court said that EU law does not recognize a separate category of “particularly extraordinary events.” It acknowledged that similar claims could have “substantial negative economic consequences” for airlines, but it noted that a high level of consumer protection must be afforded to all passengers.

“The importance of that objective may justify even substantial negative economic consequences for certain economic operators," the court said. "In addition, air carriers should, as experienced operators, foresee costs linked to the fulfillment of their obligation to provide care."

Ryanair warned that airfares will rise because of the new ruling, which will force airlines to pass on such costs through increased ticket prices.

“Ryanair regrets the decision of the European Court, which now allows passengers to claim for flight cancellations which are clearly and unambiguously outside of an airline’s control,” the company said in an emailed statement.

“When governments closed large swathes of European airspace unnecessarily in response to non-existent ‘ash clouds’ over Ireland the UK and continental Europe in 2010, the travel insurance companies escaped liability by claiming it was an ‘act of God’. Today’s ruling by the European Court now makes the airlines the insurer of last resort even when in the majority of cases (such as ATC delays or national strikes in Europe) these delays are entirely beyond an airline’s control.”

The Eyjafjallajökull eruption forced airlines to cancel more than 100,000 flights amid concerns that the ash particles could clog aircraft engines. The shutdown cost carriers at least $1.7 billion and angered many after European transport ministers took five days to agree on the date when airports could reopen.

Ryanair alone canceled about 9,400 flights during the eruption, refunded all passengers’ tickets and settled all “reasonable expense claims,” totaling about $43.4 million, according to its Nov. 2010 filings.

The carrier said the latest “defective European regulation” does not allow it to recover any costs from governments or unions “who are responsible for over 95 percent of flight delays in Europe.”

The Ryanair case comes during a week of victories for European passengers seeking compensation. Earlier in the week, a judge in Staffordshire, England, awarded a couple $1,075 in compensation after their Thomas Cook flight home from Tenerife in 2009 was delayed by 22 hours. It was the first time a judge had implemented new European legislation that entitles passengers to $760 plus expenses when a flight is delayed by more than three hours.