ECJ Ruling On Flight Delay Compensation Changes Definition of Arrival Time

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The highest Court in Europe ruled on the 4th September 2014 that the arrival time must be calculated from the time the first aircraft door is opened.

It was previously thought the arrival time should be calculated from when the aircraft comes to a standstill, so this decision means more passengers will technically be delayed by 3 hours or more and more passengers will therefore be entitled to claim for flight compensation.

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We know that pursuant to Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 passengers are entitled to compensation where they experience an arrival delay of 3 hours or more, but what is the definition of ‘arrival delay’?

In November 2009 the European Court of Justice confirmed in the case of Sturgeon that passengers are entitled to compensation where they suffer a loss of time equal to or in excess of three hours, that is, where they reach their final destination three hours or more after the arrival time originally scheduled by the air carrier.

More often than not there is no dispute between an airline and the passenger as to the exact time of arrival. The exception however is where the arrival delay is close to the 3 hour threshold (or 4 hour threshold in the case of flights over 3,500km where €600 is sought).

In these cases it is essential to identify precisely as what time the flight arrived.

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In the case of Germanwings GmbH v Ronny Henning (C‑452/13), the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) was asked to consider

whether arrival delay meant:-

a) the time that the aircraft lands on the runway (“touchdown”);

b) the time that the aircraft reaches its parking position and the parking brakes are engaged or the chocks have been applied (“on-block time”);

c) the time that the aircraft door is opened;

d) some other time as agreed between the parties.

On the 4th September 2014 the CJEU, the highest Court in Europe, noted that so far as the passenger is concerned they are confined in the aircraft for the entirety of the flight and this situation does not change when the flight touches down or when the aircraft reaches its parking position and applies the brakes.

It is only when the passengers are permitted to leave the aircraft and the order is given to open the doors of the aircraft that the passengers may in principle resume their normal activities without being subject to those constraints.

the Court ruled that ‘arrival delay’ corresponds to the time at which at least one of the doors of the aircraft is opened, the assumption being that, at that moment, the passengers are permitted to leave the aircraft.

— Coby Benson

Accordingly the Court ruled that ‘arrival delay’ corresponds to the time at which at least one of the doors of the aircraft is opened, the assumption being that, at that moment, the passengers are permitted to leave the aircraft.

Anybody who travels by air will appreciate it can often be a considerable period of time between the aircraft parking and the aircraft doors being opened.

If a passenger is subject to an arrival delay which is on the cusp of the threshold then they would be advised to take photographs of the aircraft doors to show that they remained closed beyond the threshold time. This can later be used as evidence if the airline argues that the delay was less than 3 (or 4) hours.

This is great news for consumers as it means more passengers will be entitled to claim compensation when their flight is delayed.

Meet the team
Coby Benson Head Of Flight Compensation Team At Bott and Co

Coby Benson

A member of The Law Society, Coby helped establish the flight delay compensation sector in the UK.

His work has been recognised throughout the industry, winning numerous awards, including The Manchester Law Society Associate of the Year. Coby has been a key speaker on Flight Compensation, appearing on Sky News, BBC Radio and national newspapers as a flight delay expert.


*Based on 10,211 court proceedings issued between May 2013 and February 2016.