Ryanair may have to payout over ash cloud


Ryanair planeChris Radburn/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Back in April 2010, a volcanic eruption from Eyjafjallajökull caused massive disruption for travellers all over the world. Passengers were stranded, and even the Navy was called in to rescue those stuck overseas.

Airlines and insurers were quick to offer payouts to ease the pain of travellers, but Ryanair stood firm, arguing that it shouldn't be financially responsible for a natural disaster, and that it would go to court to fight for this right if needs be. Now it has done just that - and seems likely to lose.

The case

A case was brought by passenger, Denise McDonagh, who was prevented from returning home from Faro to Dublin by the ash cloud. She was eventually stuck for an extra 8 days in Portugal and says she received no help from Ryanair. Over that time she ran up substantial bills. In all, the accommodation, travel and food cost her £942, and she took Ryanair to court for the money in damages.

Under EU rules, airlines are responsible for the cost of looking after passengers who are stranded because of "exceptional circumstances", although they don't have to pay any compensation. Ryanair argued that the eruption was more than 'exceptional circumstances' so they should not have to pay,

The court in Dublin referred McDonagh's case to the Court of Justice, which has published its opinion. It decided that these were indeed "extraordinary circumstances".

The opinion

Yves Bot, an Advocate General of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, dismissed the claims in a statement: "In everyday language, the term 'extraordinary circumstances' refers to all circumstances over which the air carrier has no control: an event which is not 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.

"In the view of the Advocate General, all events which meet that description are bracketed together under a single notion, leaving no room for a separate category of 'particularly extraordinary' events which would fully release the air carrier from its obligations."

Bot added that there could be no argument that a long delay would be exempt, arguing: "It is precisely in situations where the waiting period occasioned by the cancellation of a flight is particularly lengthy that it is necessary to ensure that an air passenger, whose flight has been cancelled, can have access to essential goods and services throughout that period.

"A limitation of the obligation to provide care would in some measure deprive the EU legislation of its effectiveness, since after a few days the air passengers concerned would be abandoned to their fate."

He added that this didn't constitute an onerous burden on the airlines, who could simply factor it into ticket prices. Indeed Bot pointed out that Ryanair had done just that when it imposed a volcano levy on tickets.

What next?

This isn't a final decision on the matter. The ruling now goes back to the European court to decide if it agrees - although it tends to in eight out of ten cases.

Of course, if the court finds in the passenger's favour, this may well open the floodgates for those who paid their own way and gave up pursuing Ryanair.

It begs the question of whether it was worth the negative impact of the battle, or whether Ryanair should have taken a leaf out of the insurer's book, by paying up on what seemed right and honourable rather than fighting tooth and nail to hang onto the cash.

But what do you think? Let us know in the comments.