In a preliminary ruling of 6 October 2022 relating to a case on passengers’ rights between Flightright and American Airlines, the Court of Justice of the EU defined the concept of ‘connecting flight’ when flights are operated by separate operating air carriers that do not have a specific legal relationship, where the flights have been combined by a travel agency that has charged an average price and issued a single ticket for those flights, with the result that a passenger departs from an airport located in a Member State and arrives in a third country.
Air passengers’ rights under EU law: background and context of the case
Regulation (EC) n° 261/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 February 2004, which established common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding and of cancellation or long delay of flights (the “Regulation”), has been the object of numerous preliminary rulings by the Court of Justice of the EU, following requests by national jurisdictions to interpret its concepts or the factual circumstances that could justify compensation for passengers. The European jurisprudence has had a major impact on the practical application of the Regulation. Indeed, preliminary rulings are intended to apply only to the relevant case, but they may also be referred to by national judges in other cases.
In 2016, the European Commission consolidated this jurisprudence in Interpretative Guidelines, and a revision of the Regulation was launched but has not yet succeeded.
What was the case about?
In a preliminary ruling relating to a case on passengers’ rights between Flightright and American Airlines, the Court of Justice of the EU was invited by the German Federal Court of Justice to clarify the concept of ‘connecting flight’ when flights are operated by separate operating air carriers that do not have a specific legal relationship, where the flights have been combined by a travel agency that has charged an average price and issued a single ticket for those flights, with the result that a passenger departs from an airport located in a Member State and arrives in a third country.
In this case, a passenger had concluded an agency contract with a travel agency in the form of a single electronic ticket to travel from Stuttgart (Germany) to Kansas City (USA). The first flight between Stuttgart and Zurich was operated by Swiss International Air Lines and two flights, connecting Zurich to Philadelphia and Philadelphia to Kansas City, were respectively operated by American Airlines. The last flight from Philadelphia to Kansas City was delayed by more than four hours.
Flightright was claiming from American Airlines before the German Court compensation of EUR 600 for the passenger.
The issue was therefore whether American Airlines could be held liable for a delayed flight between two American cities, as the third flight ought to be regarded as a “unit” in accordance with the Court’s case law.
What questions were submitted to the Court of Justice of the EU?
In this context, the German Federal Court of Justice submitted the following questions to the Court of Justice of the EU:
- Can connecting flights operated by different air carriers combined by a travel agency in a single electronic ticket for the journey and for an overall price be qualified as a direct connecting flight or does there also need to be a specific legal relationship between the operating air carriers?
- In the case a specific legal relationship between the operating air carriers is required: is it sufficient if two successive connecting flights, to be operated by the same air carrier, are combined in such a reservation by a travel agent?
- If question 2 is answered in the affirmative, does this Regulation also apply to passengers boarding a flight to a third country at an airport in Switzerland?
This concept is essential in determining whether a passenger who suffered a long delay to the arrival at the destination of the last flight may rely on the right to compensation under Article 7 of the Regulation.
What did the Court decide?
Regarding the concept of connecting flights in the context of a single electronic ticket issued by a travel agency, the Court highlighted that the Regulation defines the concept of final destination as the destination on the ticket presented at the check-in counter or, in the case of direct connecting flights, the destination of the passenger’s last flight. According to the Court, the concept of connecting flights refers to two or more flights constituting a whole for the purpose of the right to compensation for passengers.
According to the notions of ticket and reservation provided for by the Regulation, the single electronic ticket issued by the travel agency covered all three flights.
In the case at hand, the Court thus confirmed that the last flight to Kansas City formed part of a connecting flight.
Furthermore, the Court stated that the classification of ‘connecting flight’ in the Regulation does not require a specific legal relationship between the air carriers operating the flights.
Finally, the Court reiterated that the operating air carriers may seek compensation from a tour operator in accordance with the Regulation.
In view of its first answer, there was no need to answer the other questions.
The judgment of 6 October 2022 clarifies the concept of ‘connecting flight’. The matter is of legal interest as it concerns flights that were booked via a travel agency and were operated by different airlines with no specific legal relationship. Furthermore, the delayed flight linked two American cities, therefore outside the European Union.
It confirms the extensive application of the Regulation by the Court of Justice of the EU, which could exceed the initial intention of the European legislators.
Considering the legal uncertainty it may generate for airlines, let’s hope the revision of the Regulation will succeed within a reasonable time frame.